Sunday, November 06, 2022

Corporate Disciplines: A Review of Session 7 of the Spiritual Disciplines Class

A simple definition of the corporate spiritual disciplines are “those shared by or including the members of the body.” In fact, one could use “body life disciplines” as an appropriate alternative or perhaps “koinonia disciplines” in reference to the Greek word (used 19 times in the New Testament) which means “having in common,” “joint participation,” or simply “sharing.” They are all useful, pointing to the important fact that the effectiveness of the Church is in the working out of each member’s personal spiritual disciplines. 

Every Christian has an intensely unique relationship with God. He is saved by God’s grace through his personal belief in the finished work of Jesus with the subsequent fruits of that believer’s life being judged on his personal responses to God. However, this same Christian has also been baptized into a body and has become part of God’s forever family. He is both an individual and a part of the whole Body of Christ. So naturally, his personal spiritual disciplines will be connected to his interaction and cooperation with others. And, like all the personal disciplines we have discussed in this course, the body life disciplines find their foundation and methodology in the Scriptures, their empowerment in the Holy Spirit, and their purpose being our godliness to God’s glory.

Here is a more specific breakdown of how it works. The koinonia disciplines are personal spiritual disciplines that 1) serve other believers and/or 2) are shared by other believers and/or 3) that are seen by others, including nonbelievers.  That third category creates the Church’s common witness to the world regarding the truths of God, the wonder and beauty of transformed lives, and the Lord’s graciousness expressed most importantly in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Remember also that these koinonia disciplines are not exclusive to the programs of the church building in your neighborhood. Yes, they will be exercised in the church, but also in small groups, in combined church fellowship (i.e., a denomination, a community outreach like the Life Chain or an evangelistic campaign), a missionary organization supported by individual Christians all over the country, the aggregate testimony of the universal Church to a watching world, and so on.

One of the most common springboards for conversations about corporate spiritual disciplines is Acts 2:42. For in that verse, four activities are mentioned as being common to the church assembly.  Those four things are listening to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers (plural).  These make a good start to the subject. However, many Bible students (myself among them) believe that Acts 2 should be understood as a “narrative” section rather than a “normative” section.  In other words, this is a description of what happened at that time and not a mandate of what Christians must always, everywhere, and forever require in their church assemblies.

Two important reasons for this conclusion are that the word “fellowship” does not, in itself, tell us exactly what activity the immediately post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem engaged in.  Since the Greek word is used in many different “sharing” actions, we cannot assume to know what “sharing” action we should do to follow their lead.  And second, there are several other details the passage describes that very few Christian congregations have deemed obligatory: miraculous signs and wonders, an unusually intense reverence for God occurring in every soul,  holding all wealth and possessions in common, going from house to house, worshipping daily in the Temple, and liberally giving to the needy. So, again, looking at Acts 2 (including verse 42) can give us ideas and inspiration for how corporate disciplines can work, but it shouldn’t be interpreted as mandatory or comprehensive.

But let’s look at another, more directly relevant Scripture for the practicing of body life disciplines -- Hebrews 10:25.  Now this verse is frequently used by preachers to remind their congregations to make it a priority to do just that; namely, congregate.  But here too, the context is critical to answering the question of purpose. Why assemble together? The text makes it clear. The assembling together must be marked by personal (and corporate) purity, by steadfast faith even in trial and temptation, by a heart moved to encourage the body, and a powerful, ongoing consideration of how to stimulate the brethren thus assembled to love and good deeds.

This text certainly presents church life as being a great deal more intentional and interactive than it normally is.  Furthermore, the passage emphasizes that the real value of the assembling together is what happens afterward; that is, in the lives and ministries of Christians as they go from the meeting place back into the world. So, how do we decide what should make up the koinonia disciplines for our day and respective cultures?  The starting point is to remember the threefold definition given earlier. The corporate disciplines are personal disciplines that serve other believers, that are shared by other believers, and/or that are seen by others as a witness of the body’s shared commitment to God.

The teaching of the Word is a given. It’s emphasized in Acts 2:42, of course, but that’s just one of numerous examples from the New Testament showing the priority of teaching God’s Word as a corporate discipline. Indeed, it is foundational to all of the other body life disciplines, a priority that fits with the whole Bible’s insistence on growth, encouragement, correction, and training in righteousness coming from the Word.  God’s giving the Church the gifts of preachers and teachers also underscores that priority. And yet teaching isn’t supposed to be relegated to the Sunday morning pulpit. For God also blesses local assemblies through the teaching of elders, the mature saints who instruct the younger ones, and all of the mutual admonition and encouragement that believers owe each other. 

No; the Sunday morning sermon is just a beginning – not an end. And even in the Sunday assembly the ministries of teaching and “stimulating one another to love and good deeds” can include testimonies, drama, missionary reports, and (as I have observed in churches in Belarus, Russia, and Poland) poetry and additional, shorter sermons presented by the elders and other laity, etc. Furthermore, other koinonia disciplines exercised in the assembly can be the reading of the Scriptures and creeds, corporate confession, news of ministry opportunities, and many more. Sunday church need not (and should not) be a one-man show. The principled, guided involvement of church members enhances the educational impact of the Sunday service.  

Of course, in most churches of the West the Sunday service are not usually a one-man show anymore. No, if there is a star in the spectator-oriented show that is the modern church service, it is the lead musician, the person we wrongfully label as the “worship leader.”  Why is that term incorrect? Because genuinely biblical worship is a whole way of life and not merely a brief involvement in singing and/or the singing of a small group.  Worship is abiding in Christ and devoting one’s time, treasure, and talents to the service of the Savior.  And though corporate spiritual disciplines can certainly include the assembly engaging in music of various sorts, the amount of time, attention, and passionate devotion that is regularly invested in “worship music” is way out of whack with New Testament models.  

Remember, those four items from Acts 2:42? Well, music wasn’t one of them. Nor was music mentioned in any of the Acts 2 description of the Jerusalem church. Other narratives from the New Testament (and the centuries of church history following) do mention singing but when they do, it is to usually say that the assembly sang a hymn.  One hymn without instruments and without hoopla. It’s quite a contrast to the elaborate, expensive, performance-driven “worship music” that now takes center stage (and a lot of time) of so many of our church services today.  And our preoccupation with music has exacted a lot of damage, not only in the divisions caused by the “worship wars” within our assemblies, but because it has helped convince modern believers that worshipping God is merely (or, at least, primarily) the brief, emotional experience that comes from listening to a performance of the church “worship team.”  But again, the Bible presents worship as the well-invested pilgrimage of obedience, service, and stewardship over all of the Christian’s life. 

Let me emphasize once more that for worship to be authentic, it must go beyond the music, beyond the Sunday service, and on to a life fully spent pursuing the Lord’s purposes. And when applying the corporate disciplines, worship must pursue the goal of stimulating “love and good deeds” among the brethren. They would thus include prayers together, small groups, public witness and outreach, mission activity, elders praying for the sick, older women teaching younger women, inter-church cooperative actions, visitation, ministry to widows, teaching the young, public baptisms, and anything else involving “two or more believers gathered in Jesus’ Name.” So love one another.  Honor and serve one another.  Pray for one another.  Bear one another’s burdens.  Lead exemplary lives before the brethren.  Present a unified witness of holiness and grace before the watching world.

Yes, your personal disciplines need to be real and consistent before your involvement in corporate disciplines will be of any value to God.  But if you’re growing and worshipping (in spirit, in truth, and with the whole of your life), you will be a powerful help to your forever family of fellow Christians.