Copyright © 2003, 2015 by Larry G. Overton
[Here is the vision statement I promised in my last blog (yesterday, June 3, 2015). As I said there, this is a document I wrote in November of 2003, intended for a fellowship of believers gathering together according to the principles given below. I’ve made some slight revisions and even added a new section, but it is essentially the same statement of vision I wrote 12 years ago. If after reading it you want to know more or want to discuss this vision with me, please feel free to get in touch.]
I want to share with you our vision of being a part of the body of Christ in a city that bears that very name (in Latin): Corpus Christi, Texas. I hope to present to you the essence of our 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 our statement of vision, expressed in a single sentence.
We desire to be a part of a local network of home assemblies that are Christ-centered, open, Biblical, non-institutional, non-denominational and elder-led.
The rest of this document will be dedicated to elaborating on this vision statement, point by point, in order.
This phrase implies several things about our vision. For starters, the word “local” tells you that the focus of our vision is on the metropolitan area of Corpus Christi, Texas. Of course, the body of Christ is much larger than this one city, and we definitely see ourselves as part of the worldwide body of Christ. But on a practical level, our place in that worldwide community of Christians is “local.” This is our primary field of Christian mission.
Furthermore, in referring to a network, we are indicating that we envision more than one such fellowship existing in Corpus Christi. Simply put, our 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, we are not trying to start some new denomination. We do not want to erect a hierarchical infrastructure that mandates conformity and/or allegiance to a person or group or organization. Rather, we simply want to interact with brethren who share the same vision. We desire the accountability and encouragement that comes from a relationship with others who are like-minded.
And by the way, we 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 our spiritual family.
That includes those who are truly born again within the institutional/denominational churches in this city. We may disagree on key issues affecting body life, but we’re family. We will maintain fellowship with these brothers and sisters to the extent that they are open to our fellowship.
This local network I am referring to 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.” (Matthew 18:20) 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.
We do this, not because of some recent trend such as a cell group program implemented by an institutional church, but because of New Testament principle and practice. By assembling in homes, we 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 our understanding of the Scriptures, then, 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.
Many today claim that their 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 almost become a cliché. Even so, I believe that the phrase “Christ-centered” still has meaning, however widely and/or inappropriately it may be applied.
To us, being “Christ-centered” means that Christ, who is our life, is central to our every endeavor. We therefore want to yield every aspect of our lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Of course, this is easy to say, but difficult to do. 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.
In apostolic times, Christian assemblies were “open” to the participation of the members of the body. There was no performer/spectator dynamic involved in their meetings. The way institutional churches meet is based on specific concepts. A typical institutional meeting, based upon the concept of performance, involves: religious “services” that are completely scripted; monologues delivered from a pulpit; …“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 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, share a teaching, or communicate some word of revelation, as the Spirit moved them. We desire to restore that dynamic of Spirit-directed, open participation to our meeting times.
If you are somewhat skeptical 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 “Christian” congregations, even whole denominations that do not believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God. They therefore conclude 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. And in some extreme cases, 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 point 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 we 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. We realize that our statement of faith concerning the Scriptures is not unique. We share this view with all who are truly born again.
We applaud the motives of those who aim to be Biblical. However, many of these same churches, while adhering to Scriptural standards in the essentials of the faith, resort to man-made doctrines and methods in certain aspects of the life and structure of the church. It is at this point that we would differ from many of our denominational and institutional brethren. In this matter of being “Biblical,” we differ from these brethren not in confession, but in application.
We desire to pattern ourselves after the body of believers living in the first century. We 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. We 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.
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). We 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 found in our English Bible versions. For more on this, see my Fact Sheets on the origins of the word.)
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. We reject the man-made hierarchies and doctrines of men as aspects of denominationalism that are 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, we are also non-denominational in the sense that we refuse to distinguish ourselves from others by virtue of a name. We reject the names of men and movements as inappropriate for the body of Christ.
As is the case in other points of our vision, our 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 more from the political and business realms than from the Scriptures.
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 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.
We believe in men known as “elders” shepherding and overseeing the local house gatherings in our network. Our vision on this point is about more than just titles: it is about the Biblical principle of plurality of leadership. This body of elders will have no “first among equals,” but will instead be guided by the Biblical principles of accountability and diversity of gifts and abilities.
If I had to sum up our vision in a single word, that word would be “Restoration.” And to end this statement as it began, I will expand that one word summation into a single sentence: “We desire to see a restoration of New Testament Christianity to our day and time.”