The Riverbanks of a Movement – Part 1
– By Steve Smith –
We previously looked at the importance of setting the DNA for a kingdom movement within minutes and hours of a new disciple’s commitment to Christ. That brings up one of the greatest fears about Church-Planting Movements (CPMs): That heresy and immorality will emerge in the movement. Scripture makes it clear that problems will emerge in any ministry (e.g. Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). This was a primary factor in Paul writing his churches addressing heresy, immorality and a host of other sins.
One characteristic of CPMs is that they are out of your personal control but stay within the control of the King. A basic premise of CPMs is to exercise proper influence to shape the movement, but not usurp the role of the Spirit to control and be the Teacher of the movement.
Giving up control, however, does not mean giving up influence. At the outset of discipleship in a movement, there are clear riverbanks (values) to set up that enable the raging rivers of CPM to stay within the banks of orthodoxy and morality. We need not fear heresy and immorality IF we have a plan for dealing with them. If we do not, we should fear them greatly.
The Riverbanks of a Movement: Obedience to the Word Alone as Authority
Ultimately, you cannot control a CPM, or any other movement of God, as long as you want it to continue to grow as a movement of God. What you can do is nudge and shape it, and put parameters in place that enable you to call back believers and churches when they inevitably get off-track. These are the banks of the channels through which the movement will flow. The banks keep it in the channel of orthodoxy, orthopraxy and holiness.
The alternative is restrictive control of a movement, similar to the old brittle wineskins of Matthew 9:14-17. Jesus condemned the heavy burden of the rituals the Jewish leaders had imposed on the people of God; they were inflexible and slavish. In these wineskins, orthodoxy and morality are controlled through rules and our personal oversight, and eventually suppress kingdom growth.
In CPMs, what is essential is that you give emerging believers, churches and leaders a way to hear God speak in his Word (authority), a value to obey whatever he says (obedience) including a willingness to self-correct the movement no matter the consequences. Scriptural authority and obedience are the twin riverbanks to keep the movement biblical.
AUTHORITY: Authority of God’s Word Alone
The Reformers’ value of Sola Scriptura has been upheld by believers for hundreds of years. Yet, in practice, it is easy to move away from Sola Scriptura by creating competing functional authorities for new believers and churches. Theoretically, we say: “Scripture is their final authority.” Practically, it is easy for the missionary, statements of faith, church traditions or “words from the Lord” to functionally usurp Scripture as the final authority.
Handing Bibles to new believers and telling them to study them does not make Scripture their final authority. Rather, you must instill a value that God’s Word is their final authority. In CPMs or new church starts, you set the DNA for almost all of the new believers’ understanding and practice. From day one you must demonstrate that it is Scripture that is authoritative for all of life.
Eventually, the movement may spread beyond your direct influence. What authority will they follow when questions or disputes arise? If you set them up to value the Word PLUS your opinion, what will happen when another teacher comes in (orthodox or false teacher) whose opinions contradict yours? How will you call them back when they get off track?
If you have not given them a value that Scripture is the final authority, you have no way to call them back when they err. It’s your opinion versus anyone else’s. If you have set up your word as an authority, then you are setting up the movement for failure.
A Biblical Precedent: 1 Corinthians 5
Even Paul, an Apostle of Christ, resisted setting up his opinion as the authority. Instead, he referred his churches back to the Scripture. From the beginning, heresy and immorality infiltrated the churches that Paul established. There was no way to avoid it. But Paul built into the churches a way to address it. One example is found in 1 Corinthians 5.
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. (1 Cor. 1:5, NASB)
Such a sin would lead us to discount the orthodoxy of a movement. Paul, as a realist however, recognized that the enemy would sow tares. He didn’t let this shake his faith in moving forward.
The answer to the situation was to remove this offending person from their midst until he repented (1 Cor. 5:5). At this point, Paul could have used his authority as the spiritual father. The problem is that Paul would not always be there to answer each situation in the future. In addition it would set up the movement for divisiveness: his opinion against another person’s opinion (e.g. 2 Cor. 11:3-6).
Instead Paul pointed them to God’s Word.
Remove the wicked man among yourselves. (1 Cor. 5:11, NASB)
Paul referred to Deuteronomy 22 as the guide for this decision:
If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel….
A man shall not take his father’s wife so that he will not uncover his father’s skirt. (Deut. 22:22, 30 NASB)
How do you develop this value of Scripture alone as final authority? One of the best ways is to minimize directly answering important questions (your opinions) but rather refer the believers to the appropriate Scripture in which to meditate for a decision.
In healthy movements the default answer is: “What does the Bible say?” By repeatedly asking this, the believers quickly realize that they must value the Bible as the final authority, not you the teacher, church planter or missionary.
To do this, healthy movements develop a simple method for believers to use to learn how to read or listen to the Bible and interpret it accurately. As disciples approach the Word with open hearts and a healthy hermeneutic, they will continue to grow in Biblical understanding becoming self-feeders.
This does not mean that you never answer questions. But as you resist the temptation to answer their questions and give the group of believers a healthy method for interpreting Scripture, you will realize that the body of Christ has amazing ability to come up with biblical answers from the leadership of the Spirit. The self-correcting power of the body is amazing (Matt 18:20).