By Peter Thompson B.Theo Grad Dip Theology
In Part 1, we looked at the failure of Israel as God’s choice grapevine to yield good fruit. In Part 2, we looked at how God’s judged and destroyed vineyard was restored to life again through Christ. Now, we will consider how the church can learn from Israel’s mistakes by structuring each Christian community around their union with Christ.
While church leaders these days do not generally exploit their congregations by oppression and violence as did Israel’s rulers and governing upper class, there is still a correlation because:
- the greed, arrogance, and failure to trust God underlying the oppression and violence of Israel’s leaders outlined in Part 1 is relevant today among church leaders, although there is clearly a large proportion of ministers/leaders who do not exhibit these traits;
- the spiritual adultery, indulgence in worldly pleasures, idolatry, and perversion of God’s people outlined in Part 1 which propagated the bad leadership in Israel is widespread in churches today; and
- a large proportion of church leaders today are insecure within themselves, and feed on the attention that accompanies their leadership role to feel good about themselves, thereby inadvertently taking ownership over what properly belongs to God for personal psychological benefits.
This becomes clearer when we consider just what it was about Israel’s leaders that led to the judgment and destruction of the nation.
Indictment on Israel’s Leaders
The destruction of Israel as God’s vineyard was caused by Israel’s leaders acting irresponsibly and unjustly when they:
- confused the pathways the people should take under Yahweh’s rule rather than leading them in the right way, causing them go astray, plundering the poor entrusted to their care, crushing them for their own advantage (Isaiah 3:12-15; Deuteronomy 17:14-20; compare Isaiah 28:1-19; 32:1-8; 3 John 3-4; note especially Ezekiel 19:1-9 in the light of Genesis 49:8-9, 2 Kings 23:31-37; 24:1-4; 2 Chronicles 36:1-8; Jeremiah 22:11-12 which speaks of Jehoahaz/Shallum and Jehoiakim, two of Judah’s last Davidic kings, as young lions devouring human flesh on the mountains of Judah/Israel, with Jehoiakim in particular terrifying the whole land and laying waste/depopulating its cities);
- transgressed the natural instincts of the created order by not knowing how to live communally in a naturally ordered way despite having Yahweh’s precepts, misleading God’s people by prophesying falsely a situation of well-being when the people are destroying themselves by persistently turning away from Yahweh, and being just as greedy for unjust gain through false dealings as everyone else in the nation (Jeremiah 8:4-13; compare Ezekiel 13:1-23; 14:1-11; Isaiah 1:2-3); and
- forsook their God-given role as a producer of grapes to assume the self-aggrandising posture of a huge tree (by aggressively increasing one’s power and prestige), a symbol of the arrogance of the nations (Ezekiel 17:1-21; compare Deuteronomy 17:19-20; Ezekiel 31:1-18; Isaiah 2:12-19; 10:33-34; Psalm 29:3-6).
Cleansing of the Church as God’s Restored Vine
While there are clear connotations of God’s restored Messianic vine producing fragrant wine being the eternal kingdom that will be ushered in at the end of this age when Jesus returns, there is still a present application today because this restored vine rooted in Christ as the true vine stem:
- is still in need of pruning/cleansing (John 15:2-3, 6);
- hasn’t finished bearing the fruitfulness of being sent into the world to prove their discipleship to Jesus (John 15:7-10, 16; compare John 17:16-18, 23); and
- hasn’t stopped being friends of Jesus who is still working in the world by the Spirit (John 15:14-15).
The pruning therefore does not refer to those who are not Christians, who do not believe in Christ, who will not enter the eternal kingdom, because one has to initially be in the vine before it can become a fruitless branch. Those who are pruned are actual believers, Christians, who fail to dwell in Christ through obeying His words, evidencing that they do not really know Him and follow Him as true disciples (compare Matthew 7:21-23; 13:1-9; 18-23; Luke 6:46-49; 8:4-8, 11-15; Mark 4:1-9, 14-20).
Genuine Disciples of Christ
This means that bearing fruit is what makes believers Christ’s genuine disciples/followers (John 15:8; compare John 8:31-36), because only love for one another evidences that discipleship (John 13:34-35; compare 1 John 3:14-16; 2 John 5-6, 9; Colossians 1:9-10; 2 Peter 1:5-8; Galatians 5:22-24). This entails not just being Jesus’ slaves but being His friends who know what He is doing (John 15:15), just as Jesus was able to obey the Father because He knew what the Father was doing (John 5:19-20).
Those who don’t demonstrate this sort of discipleship are thrown away and burnt like fruitless branches from a bad vine. This is in full keeping with the Old Testament imagery which becomes clearer when it is understood that Christian communities can bear putrid fruit, just like Israel did.
In Ephesians 4:29, Paul exhorts the Ephesian communities to stop “putrid” communication coming out of their mouths. This putrid communication is, in the context of Ephesians chapter 4, community-destroying speech produced by a vine that is not the true vine of Christ because:
- putrid fruit can only be produced by putrid/bad trees (Matthew 12:33-37; Luke 6:43-45), suggesting that it stems from being in Adam, i.e. the works of the flesh, rather than from being in Christ, the new Adam (Galatians 5:17-21; Ephesians 4:17-24; Colossians 3:5-10; Romans 8:4-8);
- only in the humility of the wisdom which comes down from above (as a good gift from God) can good fruits/conduct be produced, yielding a harvest of righteousness, whereas wisdom which is earthly, unspiritual and demonic (and hence haughty) produces community-destroying behaviours (James 1:17; 3:13-18; compare 1 Corinthians 1:28-30; 2:2-5, 12-13; 12:8; Ephesians 1:17; Colossians 1:9; Isaiah 11:1-2; Job 32:8-9; Proverbs 2:6-11; Deuteronomy 34:9; Acts 6:3, 8-10; Jude 17-19); and
- bad leaders such as false prophets, those who are ravenous wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing in order to feed on the sheep, can be recognised by their putrid fruit (Matthew 7:15-20).
How Christian communities can operate out of both good and bad vines will be looked at in forth-coming blogs concerning the functionality of being in union with Christ.
Consequently, to achieve the covenant faithfulness and obedience to the commands of the risen Jesus essential for dwelling in Him as the true vine, church leaders have to:
- be utterly dependent upon Christ themselves, which means not just obeying the written commands of Scripture, but also knowing what the risen Jesus (embodying the living God) is doing in the world, and partnering with Him in it;
- help facilitate the whole community being utterly dependent upon Christ, dwelling in His word (spoken in the now, not just written) and developing a passion to partner with Him in what He is doing in the world by ensuring that His manifest presence and commands are obvious to all through the supernatural, community-wide expressions of the charismatic gifts;
- seek the command of the risen Jesus in the midst of the Christian community to challenge sinful behaviour and to guide ethical decisions rather than determining what is right and good from human reason alone;
- facilitate the good fruit of loving one another through community-building behaviours and speech produced within the Christian community by the supernatural transforming activity of the Spirit;
- actively resist all human tendencies to develop a passion for pleasure and self-interest within the Christian community rather than developing a passion to seek and do God’s will;
- seek the mind of Christ rather than resorting to the world’s ways to garner acceptance, security and/or freedom from persecution;
- ensure that the truth of the Gospel is kept pure so that the church community stays on the right path;
- ensure that no pagan practices are embraced to bolster flagging spirituality;
- ensure that they themselves are not taking advantage of their role within the community for their own benefit, whether physical, financial or psychological; and
- remove all arrogance, selfish-ambition and self-aggrandising behaviour from their own midst.
Once again we arrive at the need to structure church communities around the supernaturally manifest presence of Jesus in the midst of the assembly. I am convinced that this is the only way to effectively dwell in Christ, the true vine, in order to be supernaturally transformed to bear the fruit of loving one another, just as Jesus dwelt in the Father by the Spirit and loved us. The typical way the church has done things in Australia to date through hierarchical structures around sermon-centred worship services is clearly flawed and hasn’t worked.
Church Excellence Framework
This is part of the reason why the Church Excellence Framework seeks to:
- consider the implications of Servant-Hearted Leadership and the processes to Support Individuals Finding their Calling, and move from members helping the church ministry to Churches Helping Each Member’s Ministry, under the “Plan & Communicate” principle;
- move to Measures of Transformation as a key success criteria, consider our Identity in Christ as a fundamental competency to understand and How to Work as a Team & Serve Others as a fundamental competency to teach, consider the Number Equipped to be Sent Out & Participating as a learning competence, consider developing Community through Serving God Together, and recognise the importance of Modelling in Teaching, under the “Identify Learning Interventions” principle;
- invite each church member to discover their particular calling, place to serve and call to mission, give opportunity for each to serve regardless of length of church attendance, and encourage high quality relationships around a common purpose, under the “Reach Out & Establish Believers” principle;
- encourage the ministry gifts of apostle-prophet-evangelist-shepherd/teacher, and consider Blended/Action Learning Methods, under the “Equip Believers” principle;
- consider One-on-One Coaching/Discipling/Mentoring, consider the implications of the Priesthood of All believers, and encourage the networking/netweaving of similar ministry interests to create synergy, under the “Empower & Multiply” principle; and
- evidence the active engagement and growth of church members, and encourage an assessment of what is/what is not working, under the “Engage & Evaluate” principle.
To review the studies included in the Framework and find out why we have concluded these things you will need to see the notes which are available by contacting us.
Please also share our blog to allow others to review and contribute – we need everyone, not just leaders, to play their part in building a church that others want to come to.
Peter “Thommo” Thompson was born in 1958 in the bulldust of south-western Queensland in the region around the township of Mitchell. He was converted outside of the church through a supernatural encounter with the living God in Mackay, North Queensland, in February 1979, and embarked upon a long and arduous journey of God dealing with the figurative bulldust in his life. In 2012, he completed a Bachelor of Ministry & Theology double degree, and in 2013, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Theology, all at Tabor Adelaide. He currently lives with his two adult daughters in Ipswich, Queensland, and is writing a series of academic novels with the intent of hopefully helping to facilitate a church unifying movement through an unbranded form of Christianity in Australia.
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