John Steward of Jesus
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Religious "orders"?

(posted at the ekklesiachurch in response to being asked:
What is your position on the need for religious orders, as apparently established by Christ, in this day in which we find ourselves ?
Do you see the need to form one or join one, yourself ?
If so, why... if not, why not?)

March 15, 2009

I write in response to a request,  and not because of preference.  If some dialog follows, I may be happy to let others have the final words on the subject.  While I am content with my present conclusions, they are not necessarily final.  Part of the motivation for my previous posting was some impatience in waiting to observe a functioning order among those somewhat known to me, so that I can learn more.

For those who develop responses somewhat Like I do, it will be helpful to be reminded of some of the background factors which have led to my present conclusions.  Those factors may give me broader insights, or make them narrowly deficient.  Knowing of the factors will help others to evaluate.

I grew up within a well-established institutional "church" of the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition.  Those I learned to know in the local congregation included many who were focused on institutional trappings, but also many others whose spirits I came to know as expressive of the new nature which Jesus came to give.  Though I could no longer live within that framework, my dominant emotional memories of those years are wholesome.  From the time of my earliest memories, I knew that I should always do what I knew internally was right.  Learning the extent to which my understanding of right was conditioned by decisions of ecclesiastical and civil authorities was a long and sometimes difficult process.  But throughout the process I knew that having ordinary people know what is right and do it is the best hope for a good life among people, and that Jesus is indispensable for the realization of that hope.  I regard life in the institutional "church" as I experienced it as deeply flawed, yet very good.

For many years I remained committed to the ideals of behavior and life established by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, and accumulated credentials, positions, and recognitions considered impressive by both.  Breaking from those traditions and patterns was an often painful experience over many more years, including an awareness that what impresses people may not impress the Lord.

My years of transition and searching included participation in a Mennonite congregation, a Vineyard congregation, and a congregation with background ties to the Plymouth Brethren.

After years of searching to find fellowship with others who wanted nothing but to enjoy together the presence and leading of the living Lord, my wife and I have been blessed in most recent years to enjoy regular (twice weekly at present) fellowship gatherings  which we experience as meeting that standard.  The group includes a total of five men with their families who are committed as kingdom subjects to supporting and meeting the needs of each other while separated from all the conventional structures which are seen as providing and protecting people in the kingdoms of the world.  Others who participate are in various stages of learning and separation from involvement in those structures.  I have never felt more loved and secure than I do among this gathering.

As further background, I will comment on some of the concepts which influence my conclusions.

Dividing people into status groups which have often been labeled as clergy and laity has always been problematic to me.  The concluding New Testament message seems to me to be that all those who are identified with Christ and renewed by His Spirit have equal access to the Father and are equally equipped to be His agents and do His work as he leads and uses them.  All should bear fruit; all are given gifts; all are parts of the body.  Even in the early developing scene of the time of the apostles, the terms used to designate functions seem to me to be more descriptive than prescriptive.  They tell us what people were doing, not what their status or definition was.  Deacons were appointed as a matter of practical arrangement, not as a matter of inherent status, ideological arrangement, or theoretical formulation. In my opinion the reason there has been such endless debate as to how many "offices" or gifts there are, and how each of them is to function, is that the labels were always meant to be helpful, and never limiting.  Such debates are similar to arguing whether it would be proper to ask a "Tuesday yardman" to fix a door on Thursday.

I have found the many references on this forum to a "vow of poverty" to be helpful and worthwhile.  The western capitalistic model of capable individuals who accumulate wealth and build an "estate" which is passed on to their genetic "heirs" seems to me to be in conflict with the N.T. description of life in the body of believers, the citizens of the kingdom.  As I have pondered the matter, it seems to me that the essential element of a "vow of poverty" is a recognition that one will never have such an estate which will be inherited by genetic relatives, one's natural "family".  Furthermore, those in the body of Christ should consider everything they possess as gifts entrusted to their stewardship for the benefit of all.  Nothing is claimed for self-interest, to be used or squandered as I jolly-well please.  Everything is received in trust, as a gift entrusted by our Father, who expects us to use it for the welfare of his people and the good of his earth.  Whatever remains when our life ends will pass on to others who will carry on the stewardship--our spiritual family.  Our "heirs" are defined spiritually, not genetically.  Our father, mother, brothers and sisters are those who know the will of God and do it.   When we live with such commitments, are we not all under a "vow of poverty" without "estates" in the secular sense?

If I had been asked ten years ago whether Christ had established orders, I would have found it difficult to respond because I would have put little meaning into the word or the question.  I might have thought you were asking about directives or instructions in the sense of orders given in the army.   An "order" as we speak of it here is like a system, an arrangement or an establishment, an artificial concept, a legal fiction.  Finding references to "orders" in the New Testament requires schooling in theoretical and legal frameworks of thought.  Whether the label and concept is helpful may be a matter of opinion.

Although I do not claim to have a "position" on the need for religious orders, in the sense of doctrine which must be defended, by now you may have sensed that I do not at present see the need to form one or join one myself.

As I implied in a previous posting, my concept of what life should be like for those in the kingdom is possible only in the presence of a living Lord who has a relationship with each citizen, which is another way of saying that he really is King, here and now.  Those confined to living in a world limited to people, what they know, and what they can do, of necessity generate endless documents, records, authorized officials,  recognized procedures and rituals, and chains of command.  No ordinary man ever knew everything or could singularly minister to the needs of millions of people.  Legal complexity is inevitable when there is no reference available outside human experience.

When we are asked for evidence that we live in an alternative kingdom, we should point to living assemblies and testimonies of live witnesses, more than to electronic images, symbols on paper, and arrangements established as legal fictions.  Will this evidence be "recognized" by the kingdoms of the world?  Probably not.  What will be the result?  Only the King knows.

May He give us all wisdom, draw us together as His people, make us more sensitive to His leading, and use us for His purposes.