New wine in new wineskins
– On church structure and tradition
Every might move of the Spirit of God in the past (commonly called “revivals” or “awakenings”) have changed some aspect of traditional church – things like tent meetings, altar calls, prayer meetings, bible studies or small groups, house churches, etc. was originally something “new” (even if much of it could be found in the New Testament already).
Jesus made an important point when He was confronted by the Pharisees for his disciples not fasting according to the Jewish traditions of the time. New wine needs to be poured into new wineskins.
Today there are many different Christian traditions. The issue is not that some traditions are good or true and some are bad… the issue is whether the traditions still serve the Kingdom of God? If God would work through his Holy Spirit again like in New Testament times, would our current church structure be able to handle it? Or would it be a stumbling block and a means of resisting the Holy Spirit of God? If God sends us the revival that many are praying for, would our church structures be able to handle it? Or will it be like pouring new wine into old wineskins… the skins will burst and the wine spill? If 3000 should become believers in one day (and one town/city) would we be able to baptise and include them into the body of Messiah like the Jerusalem church did? Are our structures and level of maturity of current believers really prepared to handle such an outworking of the Spirit of God?
There are many aspects of modern church (including protestant churches) that are not based on the Bible, but are based on human tradition (see “Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola). But not all of them will necessarily be a hindrance the the work of the Spirit in revival, as long as they do not become more important than the Word of God.
One tradition that can be a stumbling block, is the position of the pastor / preacher as somehow above the “ordinary” congregation members. Jesus made it explicit that we should not be seeking positions and titles, but that the way to lead is to serve. Peter repeats that in his letter: the elders (shepherds) should take care of the flock, not by coercion or for profit, but eagerly and cheerfully, not as dictators or domineering, but as examples (1 Pet.5). There is no precedent in the New Testament for the idea of a clergy and laity. “for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers … you have one Master, the Messiah. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt.23) It is by imitating and demonstrating the life of Messiah Jesus, that our leaders are to lead. The aim is to teach the sheep to be able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd for themselves (John 10), not to rule! Unless this same attitude is in the hearts of our leaders that were in Jesus (Phil.2), humbling Himself for us, they will often offer the greatest resistence to the Holy Spirit working in the body of Messiah in revival! This often happened in the past. While the “five-fold ministry” of Ephes.4:11-12 can to some extent help us to function as the body of Jesus on earth in having different leadership gifts (rather than just a “pastor” or teacher), it can also become an excuse for seeking titles and positions!
The other important “tradition” that can grieve the Holy Spirit and prevent revival, is the lack of unity among believers. While I may disagree with my brother about many things, if he is truly following Jesus and would be accepted by God on this basis and if he is not living in open sin or teaching false teaching that would endanger the salvation of those who hear him, we have to accept each other as true brothers in Christ, loving each other as He loves us and not allow our differences (sometimes simply differences in musical taste!) to divide us. Moreover, we can (and should) actually learn from each other. By having our church denominations that isolate us from other believers, ways of worship and different teaching emphasis, we are missing out on the fullness of the body of Messiah. Division in the body of Messiah, a proud spirit of being right, rather than being loving, is one reason why we do not see the reality of New Testament churches and the same power today.
The last point that I believe is very important, is that we should not confuse church structure (new wineskins) with the power and life of the Holy Spirit (true revival). Just changing our traditions and structures are meaningless on its own. Starting to have house churches, because God blessed and gave revival in China through house churches, is to miss the point. It is not the structure that is important (even if we change to be closer to the primitive New Testament church) – it is the power and fruit of the Spirit of the Most High God that matters. A New Testament church structure can only prepare us for the outpouring in power of the Spirit of God (like the first church in Acts 1), but it is not the Holy Spirit Himself. Revival, the church of Jesus which have become luke-warm, cold, dead or tolerant of false teaching (Rev.2-3), repenting and becoming alive again is above all an inner working of the Holy Spirit, not an outward manifestation through structures and (new) traditions. In a time where the church in the West has become stagnant and cold and where many young people are leaving the church, may we have the wisdom and courage to prepare ourselves for what God wants to do in and through us as his body on earth.