July 17, 2017 by Larry G. Overton
[I wrote the first version of this vision statement almost fourteen years ago. It was a document I wrote in November of 2003, intended for a group of believers gathering together at that time. Prior to fellowshipping with this group, my wife and I had met with believers in our home and/or in the homes of others since 1992. So that 2003 document drew from the Bible study, the experiences and insights gleaned from that previous decade.
In the ensuing fortnight of years, much has changed. Those gatherings of the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century no long exist, but my vision remains. A couple of years ago, I made some slight revisions to that original document and posted version 2.0 to my website.
Now, I have once again made revisions and added new material to that document. Hopefully, the passage of time has given me more wisdom, greater clarity of vision and a means of expression that clearly communicates this vision.
If you’ve ever wondered what it is I believe in and what I’m looking for in the Christian assembly, this is my latest (v. 3.0) and hopefully my best effort at spelling that out. If after reading it you want to know more or want to discuss this vision with me, please feel free to get in touch.
Larry G. Overton
Monday, July 17, 2017]
I want to share with you my vision of being a part of the body of Christ in a city that bears that very name, albeit in Latin: Corpus Christi, Texas. I hope to present to you the essence of my vision in this document. I will leave the discussion of the finer points and Scriptural details of this vision to other documents and to personal conversations. Here, then, first of all, is my statement of vision, expressed in a single sentence.
I desire to be a part of a Christ-centered and Biblical local network of home assemblies that are non-denominational, non-institutional, open and elder-led.
The rest of this document will be dedicated to elaborating on this vision statement, point by point, in order.
Many today claim that their “church,” ministry, endeavor or financial enterprise is “Christ-centered.” There are “Christ-centered” radio stations, recording studios, shopping malls, art galleries, computer services, employment services, ad infinitum. The use of this descriptive phrase is so widespread it has become something of a cliché. Even so, I believe that the phrase “Christ-centered” still has meaning, however widely and/or inappropriately it may be applied.
I believe for the Christian, being “Christ-centered” means that Christ is central to our every endeavor. Jesus is our center, our focus. He’s why we do what we do. He is Lord; He has all authority in heaven and on earth. We should therefore yield every aspect of our lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Of course, this is easy to say, but difficult to do. For every believer, submitting to the Lordship of Christ is not just a one-time event; it is an on-going process, a way of life. This is our goal, and so we purposely speak of being centered on Christ, to challenge ourselves to continue on, to be “Christian” in the truest sense of that name.
I don’t believe I’m claiming something unique here. Many denominations claim to be Christ-centered, as do many believers. This is a particular aspect of my vision that is shared by many. I don’t believe denominations and denominational Christians are successful in their attempt to keep their eyes on Jesus and lay down their own self-interests, “church” politics and allegiances, but then as I said, none of us have perfected this one.
So the goal of being focused on Christ, to be submitted to Him and to glorify Him remains a crucial aspect of my vision. I must continue to challenge myself, and as the body of Christ we must continue to challenge ourselves to be Christ-centered.
Being Biblical is the second aspect of my vision, an aspect closely related to recognizing the Christ-centeredness of the Lord’s assembly and submitting to the Lordship of Jesus. It is good and right that we strive to be Christ centered. Jesus is Lord. He has all authority, and we worship Him, not the Bible.
That said, we would not even know that we should be Christ centered were it not for the Bible. We would know precious little about Jesus were it not for the Bible. The Bible reveals the person of Jesus, the Lord that we submit to, the God whom we worship. So Christians must submit to the Lordship of Christ in accordance with the revelation of Himself and His will in His Word. True believers must be Biblical.
At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Every church claims to be Biblical. What makes you think you are any different or better than they?” Actually, not every church makes this claim. There are quite a few “churches,” even whole denominations that do not believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God. They maintain that tradition and/or contemporary opinion is just as valid as the “writings” of the first century. Such religious groups cannot accurately be called Biblical. I would even question whether they can rightly be called Christian. I believe that in many cases they are more accurately described as post-Christian.
However, the intent of that rhetorical question is well taken. Many churches do claim to be Biblical. And quite a few of them are, at least in the fundamental aspects of the faith. They believe as I do: the 66 books of the Bible constitute the Holy Scriptures, God’s authoritative and inspired Word, which was preserved without error in the original manuscripts. In all matters of doctrine, worship and conduct, the Bible is our authority and guide. That is my statement of faith, but I do not claim that it is unique. I share this view with all who are truly born again.
I applaud the motives of those who aim to be Biblical. However, many of these same individuals and “churches,” while adhering to Scriptural standards in the essentials of the Christian faith, resort to man-made doctrines and methods in certain aspects of the life and function of the body of Christ. It is at this point that I would differ from many of my denominational and institutional brethren. In this matter of being “Biblical,” I differ from these brethren not in confession, but in application.
I desire to follow the example and pattern of the body of believers that lived in the first century. I believe that the commands, teachings, principles and patterns of practice found in the New Testament about the body of Christ are to be taken as normative for believers today. I want to abandon all man-made, denominational doctrines and practices, and follow the Bible alone in all aspects of individual and congregational life and practice.
This phrase implies several things about my vision. For starters, the word “local” tells you that the focus of my vision is on the city and the metropolitan statistical area of Corpus Christi, Texas. Of course, the body of Christ is much larger than this one city (or the tri-county statistical area), and I definitely see myself as part of the worldwide body of Christ. But on a practical level, my place in that worldwide community of Christians is “local.” This is my primary field of Christian mission.
Furthermore, in referring to a network, I am indicating that I envision more than one such fellowship existing in Corpus Christi. Simply put, this vision provides for growth. Networking also implies fellowship and interaction with like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ.
In providing for this network of fellowship, I am not trying to start some new denomination. I do not want to erect a hierarchical infrastructure that mandates conformity and/or allegiance to a person or group or organization. Rather, I simply want to interact with brethren who share the same vision. I desire the accountability and encouragement that comes from a relationship with others who are like-minded.
And by the way, I also want to have fellowship with brethren who are not like-minded, who do not share the same vision. Every born again Christian in Corpus Christi, that is, every person who truly believes in Jesus and confesses Him as both Savior and Lord is part of a spiritual family.
That includes those who are truly born again within the institutional/denominational churches in this city. I may disagree with them on key issues affecting body life, but we’re family. I want to maintain fellowship with these brothers and sisters to the extent that they are open to fellowship with me.
This local network I have a vision for is a network of assemblies that meet in homes, or “home assemblies.” Jesus said, “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” And so our “gathering together” is not about numbers, but about relationship, both with the Lord Jesus and with one another. And the place where we gather or assemble ourselves together is in one another’s homes.
I believe in this, not because of some late twentieth century trend such as a cell group program implemented by an institutional church, but because of New Testament principle and practice. By assembling in homes, contemporary believers imitate the example of believers in the first century. And following their example is more than mere mimicry. Here, as in many other areas of life, form follows function.
Home meetings are by their very nature less formal and more spontaneous. Such meetings also are by nature relationship oriented, as opposed to being religiously oriented. This venue (the home) is thus better suited to the purposes stated in the New Testament for our assembling ourselves together: to love, encourage, exhort and strengthen one another in Christ.
According to my convictions, then, my understanding of the Scriptures, an assembly that meets in a home is in and of itself a valid and viable expression of the body of Christ. These assemblies may be said to be independent, but only in the sense that they are not derived from or affiliated with some institutional, denominational church. Home assemblies patterned after the New Testament model are not independent in an isolationist sense. They seek instead to network (see above) with other believers in their city.
A denomination is an organization that unites various congregations into a legal and administrative entity. As for the churches comprising such a legal entity, they are “denominational.” To put that another way, such churches identify or affiliate with the denomination, with the legal entity in question. Their denominational affiliation, their identification with the administrative body is accomplished by subscribing to a specific set of distinguishing doctrines and by submitting to a distinct hierarchy. I reject the principal aspects of denominationalism, the man-made hierarchies and doctrines of men, as incompatible with New Testament Christianity.
However, there is more to denominationalism than distinctive doctrines and hierarchies. The basic meaning of the word “denomination” is to denominate, that is, to name something. The peril here is that exclusive names create division in the body of Christ. By taking a name, a group has distinguished (divided) itself from others in the body of Christ. Names such as Assembly of God, Southern Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Independent Baptist, Calvary Chapel, Church of Christ, Evangelical Free, Nazarene and Vineyard, to name just a few, are clearly distinguishing themselves from others just by the name. Therefore, I also strive to be non-denominational in the sense that I refuse to distinguish myself from others by virtue of a name. I reject the names of men and movements as inappropriate for the body of Christ.
Institutional is an adjective that means “of or relating to an institution; characteristic of or appropriate to institutions.” So, what’s an institution? Well, it can refer to “a significant practice or organization in a society or culture,” or to “an established organization or corporation, especially of a public character.”
For this word institutional, some synonyms include bureaucratic, conventional, formal, prescribed, businesslike and regulated. For many religious people, these synonyms are perfectly acceptable descriptors of what is “characteristic of or appropriate to” their institutional concept of “church.”
But the community of Christian believers too often called “the church” in our society is not so described in the New Testament Scriptures. Biblical descriptors generally are relational (e.g., household, family), not religious. They are organic, not organizational (see the many references to the body of believers). I choose this organic, relational and Biblical model of Christian living and assembling.
By the way, the word church is a religiously motivated term, a deliberate mistranslation that is unfortunately used very widely in our society. It is even found in our English Bible versions. Again, this is unfortunate. For more on this, see my articles on the origins of the word.
In the New Testament, the Lord’s assembly is likened to a body in which each member performs its designed function for the good of the whole body. This is a basic and well-known Biblical analogy. So it should come as no surprise that in apostolic times, Christian assemblies were “open” to the participation of the members of the body. There was no theatrical, performer/spectator dynamic involved in their meetings.
Conversely, the way institutional “churches” meet is based on specific but very different concepts. A typical institutional meeting, based upon the concept of performance, involves: a theatrical setting, characterized by a stage and performers and an almost completely passive audience; religious “services” that are completely scripted; monologues delivered from a pulpit, during which questions or comments are not welcome; “clergy” maintaining a controlling, even an exclusive right to ministry; etc. Even though such concepts and practices are the norm for the institutional “church” of today, they would have seemed strange and I daresay even offensive in the first century. Such concepts and practices were foreign to the way believers in the first century met.
Meetings in New Testament times, based on completely different concepts, stand in sharp contrast to today’s model. In the first century assemblies, each believer was free to share needs, introduce a psalm or hymn or spiritual song, share a teaching, or communicate some word of revelation, as the Spirit moved them. I wish to see a restoration of that dynamic of Spirit-directed, open participation to our meeting times. I want to participate in ministry in such a setting.
As is the case in other points of my vision, my view of leadership represents a radical departure from most of the churches around us. In the vast majority of churches, there is an elite class of Christians known as the “clergy.” The political structures of most churches are designed to favor the clergy, a sort of caste system in these churches, as the most important or (in many cases) the only ministers in their church. And among the clergy there is almost always a single leader who is preeminent. This institutional “CEO” model of leadership is derived, not from the Scriptures, but from the political and business realms of our society.
Biblically speaking, the leadership of local assemblies is not vested in a separate, elite class of Christians, as though it were some sort of leadership caste. Nor is authority vested in one man alone, or even in one man above the others. Biblical leadership neither sets itself above or apart from the assembly of believers nor controls ministries. Leaders within the body of Christ exist to serve the body and equip them to serve others.
I believe the Biblical model for leadership of the local assembly is vested in men called elders, who are also referred to in the New Testament Scriptures as shepherds and overseers. These mature men are tasked with shepherding and overseeing the people of God in their given localities. My vision on this point is about more than just titles: it is about the Biblical principle of plurality of leadership. This body of elders has no “first among equals,” but instead oversees and shepherds God’s flock as under-shepherds to the Chief Shepherd according to the Biblical principles of accountability, and of diversity of gifts and abilities.
Well, there you have it: my vision statement. Eight concepts or principles expressed in a single sentence, and then elaborated upon briefly here. I can think of no better way to conclude this document than to leave you with a reiteration of that statement:
I desire to be a part of a Christ-centered and Biblical local network of home assemblies that are non-denominational, non-institutional, open and elder-led.