Does the pope own the church, or the charismatic leader who draws a large crowd and slowly builds a mega church? Does the pastor ‘own’ the church, or the leaders, or elders or the committee demonstrate their priority in all things by making the decisions as to how all is done to be in their church? We could also ask a deeper question the answer to which is key to many of the troubles, splits and abuses that afflict many assemblies. Does the church possess the Spirit or does the Spirit possess the church? Some of us might reply, “what is the difference between these statements, surely they are the same?” Careful thought will show us that they are not. In practice many churches live and conduct themselves as those who possess the Spirit.
The priority is the church, it is in control, or its leadership (whatever name is given to that body) is director of proceedings. There is an incipient pride not usually discerned pervading this attitude. Personal, individual experience of the Spirit and gifts, mission and ministry becomes predominant as a result. The idea that the church possesses the Spirit encourages individualism in spiritual life and self-importance is never far behind. Along with this the notion of “what God is doing now” becomes the all-defining criteria and with it a subtle jettisoning of church history, what God has done through the centuries is not considered as very relevant to our programs today. However the other statement brings a radically different basis for the conduct of church and personal life; the implications are profound. If we deeply believe that the Spirit possesses the church, putting the priority where it should be, then His unchanging nature, His deity and Creator hood come to the fore. The first statement is inherently selfish and man centered whilst the second is thoroughly God centered and affects everything we seek to do in church life from leadership right through to what we sing on a Sunday morning. Man centeredness makes for churches following the whims of fashion; contemporary styles encroach more and more whilst the sense of the enduring riches the Spirit imparted in years gone by are neglected, even despised and the quest for a ‘cool’ church becomes paramount.
The unchanging ways of God become submerged under a welter of new ideas by which it is thought the church will become truly effective and at last get the job done. Each time the Spirit has been mentioned so far no qualifying adjective has been used, this has been intentional for if we are thinking in terms of the church possessing the Spirit it is all too easy for things to degenerate to a situation where the Holy Spirit is not really present and the activity of human spirits and sometimes, more sinisterly, evil spirits carry things on. When we see that the Spirit possesses the church we have to use qualifying words, such as Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of God and immediately we are touching the realm of the eternal and the present happenings of church are humbled appropriately and we, along with them are humbled to understand that we are a small part of the movement of God’s Spirit throughout church history. The church had a beginning in time, God’s Spirit did not, and He is outside time and is the Eternal Spirit. (Heb 9v14) The church does not create its own life; the Holy Spirit is the Creator Spirit Who creates its life from the Father through the Son. That we are His possession is the reality and this must be known and understood among us. He is the Spirit of the Father and the Son; when we are baptized into Him we are baptized into what Father and Son are doing, we are immersed into the possibility of participating in the life and work of the Community of the Godhead. We are made to share in God’s mission on the earth and it is the Spirit Who makes us witnesses unto Jesus. (Acts 1v8) Spiritual renewal is accomplished by the Spirit alone as He brings Christ into the midst as a constant reality if allowed to do so. The church must learn to live under the reign of the Spirit, she is not her own boss and is not to treat lightly those things the Lord the Spirit has shown to be His ways through earlier years of her history.
The Spirit is not the church, local churches have a temporary element to their existence on earth, He remains and what He has done remains also. Importantly, the Spirit precedes the church, she is not the all important presence on the earth, He is, the church cannot exist without the Spirit, she will become a mere religious shell reduced to sustaining herself by the energy of Christianized, human spiritual powers expressed through the many skills and abilities with which the soul is endowed. She will not accomplish any eternally lasting works because that which is of the flesh is always flesh. (John 3v6) That which endures begins in the Spirit and cannot be perfected by drifting into the flesh either. (Gal 3v3) The words ‘spirit, breath and wind’ are one word family in both the Hebrew and Greek languages and this makes for some profound lessons. When the Holy Spirit is not present there is no life giving breath as far as church life is concerned. The mention of wind immediately conveys the will of the Spirit, He works when and where He chooses and is not subject to the preferences of men and women. (John 3v8) We do not attribute unpredictability to the Spirit but magnify His deity and priority. We are unwilling to recognize the way the world’s ways pressurize and affect the churches.
The management methodologies so popular in the business world are baptized into use in church life. Sometimes they seem to work for a season, but their fruit is never a deepening consciousness of the Holy Spirit in the midst as author and giver of the church’s ongoing life; the sense of the Spirit’s ownership is overshadowed by personal preference in music and ministry styles. The absence of the awareness and enjoyment of the Spirit’s presence and leadership results in churches governed by a supermarket mentality that picks and chooses from the host of Christian wares on offer nowadays, the consumer mentality will predominate, once the chosen ware loses its luster (and they always will) another is sought and the churches hiccough along from one fad to the next. All this should be profoundly humbling to us and bring us to our knees in deepest contrition. The New Testament reveals an indestructible church, enduring through every adversity, the community partaking of the Divine nature, (2 Pet 1v4) tasting the powers of the world to come, (Heb 6v5) knowing something of the eternal life with God and His people gone before not forever looking for something new. When Jesus speaks of His church He specifically mentions its abiding quality and its heavenliness. (Matt 16v18&19) Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is steeped in the Trinity, he prays to the Father that they should be strengthened in the inner man by His Spirit and concludes his prayer with the benediction, “Now to Him Who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask and think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph 3v14-21) Immediately we see the enduring, unchanging and ageless life that the churches possessed by the Spirit should be enjoying and is rightfully theirs. Let Peter have the last word this time when he tells us that the church is born “not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1Pet 1v23) Eternal Spirit and Imperishable Word, these create the church.