In prayer recently, the following text came to mind: “If the foundation is destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps 11:3). In context, the psalmist is lamenting the state of the nation, where corruption has undermined social morality. Faced with this situation, the godly are left feeling powerless and in despair. Whilst this passage has often been applied by Christians solely to wider society I believe that under certain circumstances it is true of the situation in the church. In what sense then have the foundations of the church been destroyed?
Foundations Destroyed in the Church
Some may object that the body of Christ could never be in such a dire state as to fit this text, nevertheless, scripture and history suggest otherwise. Taking just one example from the Bible, Jesus warns the church in Ephesus that if it does not repent he will “remove its lampstand”, that is, shut the church down (Rev 5). The people of God in the city of Ephesus, despite the church being planted by Paul and nurtured by the apostle John, had so declined spiritually and morally that unless they were willing to change then they would cease to exist as a Christian community.
As far as history goes, we need only to think about the corrupt start of the church in Western Europe in the late middle ages, marked by ambition, power struggles, immorality and external forms of spirituality, to realize that the foundations can, in practice, be destroyed. This is not to suggest that in these circumstances there were no godly persons at all, for God always preserves a faithful remnant, but that the characteristic environment was a lapsed condition.
I am making the claim, as I have in many articles, that this is our characteristic condition in the Australian church today because of the compromise, materialism, false teaching and sexual immorality that is so rampant amongst us. What is lacking today is manifest holiness in Christian leadership. A simple question, if you wanted the Holy Spirit to teach you the way of holiness, where would you seek it out? Would he, for example, lead you to those who are usually pastors of the largest churches in our city? I am not sure where he would lead you, but I cannot see that he could instruct you in the way of the holy cross through those who are arch – representatives of our popular church culture.
This is a very serious situation for it suggests that we have a failure amongst the apostles and prophets in or day. Let me explain.
Apostles and Prophets as Foundations
Scripture speaks in two ways of the foundation of the church. In 1 Corinthians 3:11 Paul specifies his apostolic task: “For no one can lay any other foundation than that which is laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” Elsewhere he writes of “the household of God, built on the foundation of apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” (Eph 2:20).
Apostles and prophets cannot be foundational in the same sense as Jesus is. The foundation of the church which is Christ cannot be destroyed. It is helpful to consider the apostolic – prophetic as foundational ministries of the church, it is their word of authority which establishes the reality of the church. Their ministry can indeed be distorted or corrupted and in this sense the foundation can be destroyed. Can we be more specific about this corruption? It will help to reflect on the examples I have used so far.
Corruption in the Foundational Ministries
According to Jesus, the church in Ephesus had “fallen” from a previously healthy position (Rev 2:5). In the thought world of the New Testament, the first are last and the last are first (Mat 19:30), those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted (1 Pet 5:6). Apparently this church, perhaps because of its excellent pedigree as an apostolic – prophetic congregation, had become arrogant and in danger of having to be disciplined by Jesus to the point of destruction.
These tendencies were clearly present in the late medieval period. The church was the most powerful institution of its times. It reserved the right, especially through the papacy, to judge all and to be judged by no one, it seemed humanly invincible. As we know, God had other plans – hence the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter –Reformation, both of which sought to purify the church.
If the return to foundations meant “first love” for the Ephesians (Rev 2:4) and the rediscovery of justification by grace in the sixteenth century, what would a return to foundations look like in our time?
True Foundations for Today
A key is found in the passage already quoted, 1 Corinthians 3. In the tenth verse Paul states: “like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation”. The Greek word for “master builder” is arkitekton, from which we derive our English “architect”. The arkitekton was different from all the other workers, in as much as he could envisage the content and progress of the entire programme of construction from the ground up. This suggests to me two seemingly contradictory principles. The first has already been referred to, it is humility.
Since the foundation is at the bottom of the building the true apostolic worker will be someone who, like Jesus himself, strongly identifies with those at the bottom of society. For Jesus it was the lepers, prostitutes and poor. For Australian apostles it would necessarily include indigenous folk, unemployed, the sexually abused, single mothers, low income earners, refugees and other marginalized persons. (Of course others would never be excluded.)This would seem to be a solid foundation on which Jesus could build his church.
The second principle follows on from the first one, it is a desire for spiritual elevation. This is not elevation in the eyes of humans but elevation in the eyes of God. If those who humble themselves receive divine exaltation, according to the pattern of Jesus (e.g. Phil 2:5 -11), then the wise builder will pray for humility in order to be raised up by God. In practice we see this principle operative first in Jesus and then in Paul.
Jesus explained to the disciples that, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go I will send hint to you.” (John 16:7). Only if Jesus endured the humiliation of the cross and returned to heaven would he be so united with the Holy Spirit that he would be able to send him across the face of the earth. Whilst Jesus remained on the planet he was always going to be a localized presence, no matter how powerful, only if he went to heaven could he rule over all. In other words, in biblical thinking, exaltation is always for expression. As the one who is now in the highest place (Eph 1:21; Phil 2:9- 10) the Lord Jesus is able to exert his influence globally.
This operation was also known to Paul. By his own confession he was “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:9), yet he was the one who exercised the most extensive ministry. The reality of how this could take place is suggested in that book we have already had occasion to quote as unveiling Paul’s apostolic identity, 1 Corinthians. In chapter 5 verses 3 to 5 he refers to an act of ministry that has often puzzled commentators. “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as present I have already pronounce judgement in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
1 Corinthians was probably written from Ephesus, but Paul speaks as if he is really present across space in a spiritual manner to exert spiritual power in the Corinthian church. This, in my understanding, is especially an apostolic function. The spirit of the apostle, through his sufferings and humiliation (1 Cor 12 etc.), is so united with the Spirit of Jesus, that his own spirit is present in the Holy Spirit to act and minister. No doubt this spiritual authority was exercised by Paul’s prayers as well as his letters, but it is none the less real.
Finding the Foundations Today
As I write these words I am remembering some of the power of the specific prayers of Martin Luther, the first apostle of the Protestant Reformation, and I can think of similar
acts of spiritual authority by leaders outside Australia., some of whom I have met. However I am very hard pressed to come up with the name of someone I know of in our nation who operates in this way. In other words, I think we need to pray earnestly to God to restore the ancient foundations (Isa 58:12).
Whilst I was laying hands on someone in prayer recently, an individual in whom I clearly sensed “the Spirit of the King”, I was moved to ask God that this man would be willing with all of his heart to be exalted more and more with Christ, to go spiritually higher and higher. This prayer was not for my friends own benefit but for the sake of the kingdom of God. Only through this process could his spirit be in union with the Holy Spirit in such a depth that Christ could minister to an ever wider circle of contacts. This man is still struggling with what this means for the conduct of his life, and I take this to be a good sign, a sign of humility, a sign of an emerging apostolic spirit.
Are we longing for the true foundations? If so, what are the ways are we willing to ask the Lord to humble us so we may be spiritually exalted, not for the sake of our own experience, but in order that the spheres of our influence for him may be ever abounding?