The Holy Spirit In the Life of the Church (Mennonite Church, 1977)

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The Holy Spirit In the Life of the Church (Mennonite Church, 1977)

A summary statement adopted by Mennonite General Assembly June 18-24, 1977, Estes Park, Colorado

Contents

1. Why This Study?

Historical circumstances often call attention to particular aspects of the faith and life of the church that need fresh consideration. The emergence and growth of the modern charismatic* movement in recent years has done this. Many Christians within our church and beyond have become increasingly aware of the significant role of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology experience. This heightened awareness is reflected in various ways: the rise of a considerable body of literature on the work especially the gifts of the Spirit; the emergence of charismatic prayer meetings, fellowships, and communities; the staging study conferences, seminars, festivals, renewal, and celebration conventions; the revitalizing experience of fresh encounters with the Spirit in the lives of many; a new interest in spiritual gifts and their exercise, particularly prophecy, tongues, and healing; the modification of traditional patterns of public worship allowing more freedom for lay participation in prayer, praise, and testimony; and the creation and the use of a new type of music.

Although in the history of the Christian church there have been renewal movements of various types, this study focuses on the contemporary charismatic movement which arose outside the Mennonite Church some fifteen or twenty years ago. Many of our congregations have been more or less affected by it. Some members are active participants; other are sympathetically interested; still others are uninformed or confused or skeptical or disinterested. Uniformity of understanding and experience is not a practical or necessary goal. But some clarification and evaluation of the issues involved and some positive suggestions for relating to the Spirit and to each other would seem to be desirable if progress together is to be made toward ever more mature and effective Christian living and service.

2. What Are the Focal Points of Concern?

The range of the Spirit's work in the church is as broad as its life. The focus of this study is limited to issues related more or less closely to the charismatic movement. These include the following:

A. How significant is the role of the Spirit in the life of the church? In my life as a Christian?

B. How can I establish and maintain a meaningful. relationship with the Spirit? Is there one uniform pattern of relationship?

C. What is meant by the "baptism with the Spirit"? Is it to be identified with or distinguished from the initial reception of the Spirit?

D. What is the "fruit of the Spirit"? How does it differ from the "gifts of Spirit"?

E. What are spiritual gifts? How are they related, if at all, to natural abilities? What purpose are they intended to serve?

F. Does every Christian have a spiritual gift? Can I choose and receive the gift I want? Are some gifts more important than others? How may I know what gift God has given me?

G. Were tongues, prophecy, healing, and miracle-working intended only for the primitive church or also for today? Is to the necessary sign of having been baptized with the Spirit? can prophecy be tested? Is healing in the atonement? Is exorcism spiritual gift?

H. What positive contributions can the charismatic movement make to our brotherhood? What are its limitations and weaknesses?

I. How can Christians who may view the work of the somewhat differently relate to each other in our congregational constructive and mutually helpful manner?

3. Some Biblical Guidelines

A. The Spirit Is Fundamental to Existence of the Church

1. The roots of the church go beyond Pentecost. But we cannot speak of the church in its full reality apart from the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The experiential mark of membership in the church for Jew and Gentile was the presence of the Spirit in them.

2. Certain basic characteristics of the life of the church are directly related to the presence and work of the Spirit. Notable are the following:

a. The experience of fellowship that bound the early Christians together into a community of shared life and concern (Acts 2:44 ff.; Acts 4:32 ff.; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

b. The mood of holy joy and enthusiasm that pervaded their lives inspiring worship and contagious witness (Acts 2:46 f.; Romans 14:14; Ephesians 5:18 f. ).

c. The sense of power that was released in and through them for effective witness and service (Acts 1:8; Acts 2:43; Romans 15:18 f. ).

d. The awareness of a freedom that offered new possibilities for becoming the faithful people of God. This included freedom from the tyranny of sin and Satan; from bondage to long and powerful cultural and religious traditions; freedom to love, to serve, to live the more abundant life. There was victory in principle even over death. "Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17).

B. Significant Features of the New Testament Understanding of the Spirit

1. The Spirit indwells every Christian. To belong to Christ is to have the Spirit (Romans 8:9). It is not possible to distinguish between Christians on the basis of having or not having the Spirit.

2. The Spirit undergirds the whole range of Christian experience from beginning to end. This provides the broad basic framework for Paul's conception of spiritual gifts. Unlike the Corinthians, Paul did not limit the operations of the Spirit to the unusual and the spectacular.

3. The Spirit is closely tied to the person and mission of Christ. Although the dispensation of the Spirit follows the historical ministry of Jesus, it does not supersede it. The Spirit remains subject to Christ. The Spirit interprets Christ (John 14:16; 15:26; 16:13 ff. ) and the person and life of Christ is the norm for understanding who the Spirit is and what He does (1 Corinthians 12:3).

4. The Spirit was given that the church might truly be the body of Christ sharing in His life, faithfully manifesting His character, and being fruitful in every good work (Romans 8:29; Galatians 5:16-26). This is the basic evidence of the Spirit's presence and work. To stress the gifts of the Spirit at the expense of the ethical is not only to distort the gospel but also to invite judgment upon ourselves (Acts 8:18-24).

5. The Spirit was given to the church to empower it for the task of bearing witness to Christ (Acts 1:8). A powerful evangelistic ministry in word and deed which is effective in making disciples among all nations is one of the most immediate and primary results of the Spirit's work since Pentecost.

6. In brief, it is the work of the Spirit so to interpret and vitalize the gospel in the lives of God's people in all its manifold and rich dimensions that the church, in turn, may become part of the good news of God's grace and purpose, commending its truth to the world.

C. Establishing and Maintaining a Relationship with the Spirit

1. The normal pattern for the reception of the Spirit is indicated at the close of Peter's sermon at Pentecost. "Repent and be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Repentance involves a change of attitude from unbelief to faith in God's act in Christ. This new attitude publicly expressed in the symbolic rite of baptism is the basis upon which the Spirit is bestowed. Everyone meeting this condition may rightly claim the promised gift of the Spirit.

2. There are two passages in Acts which may appear to contradict this general pattern.

a. Acts 8:14-17. This difficult passage has been variously interpreted. Most likely the Samaritan believers had not exhibited the outward manifestations that had accompanied the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. But whatever may have been the situation, Luke's use of the words "not yet" and "only" in verse 16 would suggest the unusual character of this incident. The implication is that the normal procedure was the reception of the Spirit at the time of the initial turning to Christ in repentance and faith accompanied by baptism.

b. Acts 19:1-7. The disciples Paul met in Ephesus were old covenant believers. They had undergone John's baptism which was a rite in anticipation of the subsequent pouring out of the Spirit. But they had not heard that the Baptist's promise had now been fulfilled as the consequence of Jesus' ministry. When Paul shared this fact with them, they gladly embraced the gospel, were baptized in the name of Jesus, and received the Spirit.

3. In understanding God's intention, should a distinction be made between the initial reception of the Spirit and the baptism of (in or with) the Spirit?

a. The phrase "to be baptized in/with the Spirit" occurs several times in the New Testament. John spoke prophetically of Jesus as the One who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8 and parallels; cf. also John 1:33). The risen Christ recalled this promise for the disciples in the days preceding Pentecost (Acts 1:5). Peter, too, remembered it after the Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household (Acts 11:16). The one remaining occurrence is in 1 Corinthians 12:13: "By [with or in] one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . and all were made to drink of one Spirit." The references in the Gospels and in Acts 1:5 are most naturally understood as referring to the future bestowal of the Spirit at Pentecost. The remaining instances (Acts 11:16 and 1 Corinthians 12:13), which are post-Pentecostal, refer to an event standing at the initiation of Christian experience. It would appear, therefore, that the New Testament use of the language of being baptized with the Spirit is either in relation to the original event at Pentecost or subsequently to the bestowal of the Spirit at the time of conversion.

b. More significant than terminology is the experience which the language is meant to describe. They may be examined both from the standpoint of New Testament evidence and also that of contemporary experience.

(1) The New Testament knows a range of Christian experience all the way from that of babes in Christ who can reprovingly be described as "men of the flesh" to persons who are regarded as mature and spiritual (1 Corinthians 3:1-4; Hebrews 5:11-14). The ideal which Paul holds before his converts is a life "filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). The meaning of this norm for Christian living is such a complete constant surrender to the control of the Spirit that will result, as the context makes clear, in ethical sensitivity to the will of God, a ministry of mutual edification in the body of Christ and a spirit of thankful praise in Christian worship.

In the Book of Acts, particular persons are identified as being "full of the Spirit" (Stephen, Acts 6:5; Acts 7:55; Barnabas, Acts 11:24). Reference is also made to persons being "filled with the Spirit" not merely once, but repeatedly (Acts 2:4; Acts 4:8, 31; Acts 9:17; Acts 13:9, 52). New situations of need are paralleled by new experiences of Spirit infilling.

Thus while the New Testament recognizes varying levels of Christian experience, it is clear that the thrust is toward what is described as being "full of the Spirit."

(2) Contemporary Christian experience also witnesses to fresh and transforming experiences in relationship to the Spirit. The terminology by which it is described may vary (e.g., baptism in the Spirit, release of the Spirit, anointing of the Spirit, infilling of the Spirit, and rededication), but the reality and meaningfulness of the experience to which it points is beyond question. The Holy Spirit for many in our church and beyond is not a vague or forgotten article of the creed but has become a blessed reality that enriches and empowers the whole of their lives.

c. How, then, shall we understand our relationship to the Spirit? If the relationship is of an "I-Thou" nature, then perhaps interpersonal relationships on the human level may provide some help by way of analogy.

Personal relationships are never static because persons are not fixed things but dynamic centers of freedom and change. A relationship between two persons may become more meaningful or may deteriorate. There may be a sudden breakthrough from one level of acquaintance to a more intimate understanding and fellowship. Indeed, there may be more than one such experience. The quality and character of the relationship will depend on the will of both to work at the task of relating to each other. Meaningful relationships don't just happen. Neither can they be stereotyped since no two persons are exactly alike. If such relationships are to have integrity, individual differences within the broad scope of human similarities will need to be respected.

If there is validity in this analogical approach, then certain theses can he offered for testing by reference both to Scripture and to contemporary Christian experience.

(1) It is the will of God through the Spirit to enter into an abiding, deeply meaningful relationship with us as Christians. This intention includes an awareness of the reality of Christ, a certainty of His love, a call to Christlikeness in character and in conduct, a sense of responsible participation in the body of Christ, a gifting and enabling of the Spirit for service in the mission of Christ in the world. While the content of this intention is a singular unified whole, it may be experienced in many stages.

(2) For God's intention to be realized in our experience as Christians a personal response may vary due to such factors as individual differences of understanding of God's plan for us or of differing degrees of willingness to enter upon it. For some the initial decision to become a Christian may entail such a radical openness to God that from the very beginning the totality of the person is caught up in the freeing, renewing, enabling life and power of the Spirit. For others the initial experience may have less depth and meaning. It may be followed by a series of subsequent responses each leading to new levels of relationship with Christ both in faith and in obedience and a progressive experience of ever larger and richer dimensions of life in the Spirit. For still others, the subsequent response may come as a radical crisis type in which the person is suddenly catapulted into a wholly new experience of release in the Spirit that brigs new freshness and dynamism to the whole of life.

(3) The experience of conversion for many people in our times has lacked the full meaning that it seemed to have in apostolic times. In this context God is honoring the phrase "the baptism in the Spirit" to help many people appropriate more fully what He intended at conversion. Although there are problems in using the phrase in this way we recognize that it can be helpful in ministering to persons.

(4) If experiential patterns of appropriation of the rich resources for Christian living and service given to us in the gift of the Spirit may vary within the Christian community, every Christian should be encouraged and helped to possess in full measure these available treasures. Only as each member lives and serves in the renewing and enabling power of the Spirit will the church truly be the church.

D. The Fruit of the Spirit

1. This phrase occurs in the New Testament only in Galatians 5:22 f. The word "fruit" is a collective singular. It includes a variety (nine) of Christian graces such as love, joy, and peace. The model of Christian character that is sketched in this passage is drawn from the figure of Christ in the Gospels. It is God's purpose that we should "be conformed to the image of his Son" (Romans 8:29). All of these spiritual graces should be manifested in an ever-increasing measure in the life of every Christian as there is growth in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

2. The "fruit of the Spirit" is set in contrast to the "works of the flesh" (Galatians 5:19 ff.). These are expressions of unredeemed human nature. It should be noted that the vices in this catalog are destructive of genuine community. The fruit of the Spirit, on the contrary, builds community.

3. The realization of these Christian virtues is tied to the indwelling presence of the Spirit in our lives. They are not produced by our unaided human effort. Neither are they the result of an automatic working of the Spirit apart from our efforts. They are brought to expression through the discipline of self-surrender and obedience to the Spirit whose will it is to reproduce the character of Christ in each of us.

4. The single occurrence of the phrase "the fruit of the Spirit" (vs. the repeated use of the "gift" terminology) should not obscure the fundamental importance of this aspect of the Spirit's work. The exhortations scattered throughout the New Testament emphasize this fact. Indeed, the meaning of the ultimate purpose of the gospel and the nature of Christian discipleship is in danger of distortion when this aspect of the Spirit's work is not kept steadily in view.

E. What Are Spiritual Gifts?

1. The "gifts of the Spirit" as a technical expression refers to service abilities given by the Spirit to Christians for the purpose of meeting needs in the life and ministry of the church. There are four catalogs of such gifts in Paul's letters -- Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11 -- and a brief one in 1 Peter 4:10 f. The gifts are to be distinguished from the "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22 f. ).

2. The lists of gifts vary in length and content, which suggest that they are representative rather than exhaustive in character. The gifts are God's response to the needs of the church on earth. As needs to some extent may vary, so also the gifts. Broadly viewed, the gifts fall into two groups, gifts of word and gifts of deed, corresponding to the two general areas of need in the life of the church.

3. Both ordinary and extraordinary abilities are included among the gifts. All of a Christian's abilities whether usual or unusual are seen within the framework of a new existence in Christ. While in the case of some abilities there are obvious connections with what might be called native endowments, in other cases new abilities now appear for the first time. Paul does not attempt, however, to sort out the "natural" from the "supernatural." He calls all of them, the most ordinary to the most unusual, gifts of the Spirit. Those abilities which may have roots in pre-Christian natural endowments are caught up in the cleansing, energizing power of the Spirit. These together with what new abilities may be given by the Spirit are viewed as spiritual gifts to be used in the service of the church.

4. The gifts are sovereignly and diversely bestowed (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). Two consequences flow from this fact. First, there is no place either for pride or for self-depreciation in regard to the gifts that one has or has not been given. Second, no one is expected to possess all the gifts so that the contribution of others is unnecessary.

5. The primary purpose for which the gifts are given is the edification of the church (1 Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 4:11-16). The emphasis on love in connection with the discussion of the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 to 14 is significant. Love prevents the selfish use of the gifts which so often disrupts rather than edifies the church. Furthermore, if gifts are given to edify the church, their presence in response to genuine needs in the contemporary church should be anticipated.

6. There is need for the congregation to test spiritual gifts. The primary tests for discerning whether gifts are genuine or false are: whether they conform to the person and life of Christ and whether they build the community in faith.

F. Some Gifts Which Occasion Controversy

I. Tongues

a. References to this gift occur in 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28; 1 Corinthians 14; Acts 2:4 ff.; Acts 10:46; Acts 19:6. In Acts it is mentioned only in connection with the initial experiences of receiving the Spirit. In Corinth, it was part of the ongoing life of the church. It is a service ability for edifying the church when the utterance is interpreted.

b. Nowhere is the gift of tongues regarded as the required sign of having the Spirit. It does not appear to be intended for all Christians, 1 Corinthians 12:10, 30 (where the implied answer is "no"). First Corinthians 14:5 expresses a wish (similar to 1 Corinthians 7:7) but is not imposing a standard.

c. Tongues are unintelligible utterance to the speaker and normally also, unless interpreted, to the hearer. Apparent exceptions occurred at Pentecost and occasionally since where languages unknown to the speaker were spoken or a miracle of hearing accompanied the utterance.

d. Both in Acts and 1 Corinthians tongues are basically utterances of worship addressed to God (Acts 2:11; Acts 10:46; 1 Corinthians 14:2, 14-16). For this reason they can have meaning to the speaker even if uninterpreted.

e. The normal context for the exercise of the gift is private worship. A limited permission is granted for public worship if an interpreter is present (1 Corinthians 14:18 f., 27 f. ).

2. Prophecy

a. While occasionally in the New Testament church prophecy may have included prediction (e.g., Acts 11:28), its usual content was exhortation or encouragement (1 Corinthians 14:3). The prophet spoke under immediate and evident inspiration. "Giveness" rather than novelty is the characteristic feature of prophecy.

b. Inspiration of itself does not guarantee the authenticity of the prophetic word. Prophecy must be tested (1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21; cf. also the gift of the discerning of spirits, 1 Corinthians 12:10). One such test is whether or not it exalts Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3).

3. Healing

a. Although the gift is mentioned in only two of the lists (1 Corinthians 12:9, 28), its practice is frequently attested in incidents and references of healing in Acts. The early Christians doubtless saw the gift as a continuation of Jesus' healing ministry and of His commission to the disciples to heal (Luke 9:1; Luke 10:8).

b. The Bible understands persons to be unitary beings (physical and spiritual). The welfare of the body, therefore, is part of God's concern for us as persons. Healing is not so much a proof of the truth of the gospel as part of the good news itself.

c. While some illnesses may be the direct result of personal sin, certainly not all are to be accounted for in this way. Illness is part of the present order prior to the perfection of the end time. To expect the healing of all illness now is to look for the perfection of the end before the end. Only in a general way is healing in the atonement. It is there in the sense that the cross and resurrection of Jesus are a pledge of the final abolition of all illness and death. Miraculous healings in the present time are a foretaste of the final victory.

d. Faith in God's power to heal directly should not be the Christian's last resort when all human aid has failed. It should be a normal part of congregational concern and activity when Christians gather in worship before God and in mutual care for one another.

4. Deliverance and Exorcism

a. No reference is made to such a gift or gifts in any of the lists unless it be regarded as one of the "gifts (pl.) of healing" in 1 Corinthians 12:9. Exorcism, however, was a part of Jesus' ministry and was also known in the early church (Acts 16:16-18; Acts 19:11-20). There is also contemporary interest in it.

b. The New Testament would suggest that the devil and his activities should not be the focus of our attention as Christians. Christ in His death and resurrection defeated Satan (Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14; Ephesians 1:20-22).

c. The devil, nevertheless, is not dead. We are called to warfare against the demonic powers of our world (Ephesians 6:10-20). If we slip and fall in the struggle, there is cleansing and victory when we turn in penitence and faith to our living Lord.

d. There are also times when Christians suffer extraordinary attacks from the devil. They then stand firm in victory, empowered by the presence of Jesus Christ, and encouraged by the prayers and fellowship of the people of God. By faith in the finished work of Christ and through the fellowship and ministry of believers, they are delivered from satanic attack. This deliverance is accomplished in a variety of ways but always in the name of Jesus Christ.

e. Sometimes people are suspected of being possessed by an evil spirit. Possession implies that a person hosts the evil spirit which controls his will either periodically or constantly. When this occurs, exorcism is called for in which case, in the name of Jesus Christ, the evil spirits are commanded to come out. Extreme care should be taken to assure that each case of suspected possession is discerned properly. Possession is a comparatively rare occurrence and is not synonymous with mental illness. If exorcism, for example, is undertaken because a person is being tempted sorely, the results .can be very disappointing and, in fact, harmful. As much as possible, the community of faith should be involved in the liberating ministries.

4. Toward an Evaluation of the Charismatic Movement

A. An evaluation of the modern charismatic movement must be qualified by the recognition of two factors: first, its rather recent origin in Catholic and Protestant circles and still more so in the Mennonite Church; second, the diverse character of the movement. Although it is still much too early to make a thorough assessment of the present or potential contribution of the movement to the modification of Mennonite theology or piety, it is appropriate that some observations and tentative judgments be offered for consideration and testing.

B. Like all renewal movements of the past, it is to be expected that this one will have both its strengths and weaknesses. It would be grossly unfair, therefore, either to reject the movement out of hand as having nothing to offer or to embrace naively whatever may parade under the charismatic banner as holding promise of a better tomorrow. It should also be noted that many of the positive and negative aspects listed below may appear in the church apart from the charismatic movement. Critical discernment is necessary if we are to relate to the charismatic movement in a constructive way.

C. Among the positive contributions of the charismatic movement both to the larger Christian community and to our brotherhood the following may be noted: a renewal of serious commitment to Jesus as Lord; a release of spiritual gifts and power; a strong and effective ministry of evangelism; great unity and love among the brotherhood; new forms of community and local church life; miracles of healing; many answers to prayer and other signs and wonders; growth in faith; a new vitality in the study and use of Scripture; significant increase in sacrificial giving of time and money for the Lord's work; an experience of Christian unity that transcends denominations, age differences, and cultural differences; freedom to make helpful changes in old and firmly established religious institutions; strong emphasis on the new birth as the basis for Christian life; disciplined lives of holiness and separation from the world; raising up of many strong leaders in the church; winning the active support of many young people who would otherwise be lost to Christ and the church; a dramatic increase in praise to the Lord; new levels of freedom and spontaneity in prayer and worship; church meetings that are more meaningful; the recovery of prophecy as an active gift in the church; the rediscovery of tongues, the gift of knowledge, and other spiritual gifts; much new music; a new readiness to share out of personal experience with the Lord; a more sensitive spiritual discernment as an alternative to legalism; rediscovery of the dangers of the occult and demonic powers, as well as growth in knowing how to bring the deliverance of Jesus; the emergence of an evangelical renewal within the Roman Catholic Church; a commitment to work within existing churches rather than to separate from them; recovery of a lively expectation of the Lord's return; a great love for Jesus Christ our Lord, and for the church as His body.

D. Elements of potential weakness are also occasionally evident in the movement. Attention may be called to the following: the development of stereotypes of language, understandings, and experiences which become legalistic norms for judging and labeling Christians; the withdrawal from fellowship with those who do not share a similar experience; a preoccupation with the gifts of the Spirit, especially the more dramatic, with a comparative lack of interest in the fruit of the Spirit; the suggestion of a deficiency of faith if unable to speak in tongues or to experience complete and instantaneous healing; the failure to appreciate the broad and richly diverse ways in which the Spirit works in corporate and personal Christian experience; a concentration on inner religious feelings and experience to the neglect of interest in practical aspects of Christian discipleship and social concerns; a religious arrogance that refuses to accept constructive criticism from fellow Christians; an arbitrary and careless use of Scripture resulting from an unwillingness to submit to the discipline of serious Bible study; a readiness to attribute all problems and difficulties to the devil, absolving the individual of personal responsibility; the exploitation of gifts for selfish advancement.

E. Obviously, many of these problems are not due entirely to the charismatic movement. Many of the social tensions and personal tragedies frequently associated with it are largely the result of unresolved problems which existed prior to the coming of the charismatic emphasis. As in any renewal movement, the introduction of new patterns of thought and religious expression places a strain upon the fabric of the life of the church. When both the church and the movement are basically healthy, the accompanying struggles can be a creative and growing experience. But when the church is weak and full of unresolved problems, the coming of some new emphasis can become the occasion for adding to the difficulties of the church.

F. Although the charismatic renewal is of relatively recent origin, it has been observed in a sufficiently wide range of church situations to confirm that its overall contribution is basically a positive one. It is moving in a direction that brings men and women into a closer relationship with Christ, enriching both their personal and corporate Christian experience. For the most part the movement has achieved a healthy integration into the larger life of the church. Although it is only one of the forms in which God is at work in His church, He may well have chosen this movement to counteract tendencies toward secularization, routinization of worship, hierarchical power, spiritual coldness, and lethargy. What the future course of the charismatic movement may be is not known, but this should not prevent us today from recognizing the authentic hand of God in it -- judging, quickening, inspiring, encouraging, forgiving, and strengthening His people.

5. Practical Suggestions for Maintaining Fellowship in the Church

A. To the Entire Christian Community

1. We should remember that the basis of Christian fellowship is our common participation in the gift of the Spirit given in response to our surrender in faith and commitment to Christ as Savior and Lord. We are not called to create Christian unity but "to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3).

2. As members of the body of Christ we are called to a ministry of mutual helpfulness. This includes sharing our experience of God's dealings with us in the area of our understanding and appropriation of the resources available in the gift of the Spirit. Such sharing should be done in a grateful but humble spirit free of any attempt to make our own experience normative for other Christians.

3. We should rejoice when individuals have new experiences in Christ and affirm them. We should also learn to accept a variety of experiences in our congregations.

4. We must not forget that God is sovereign in all of His dealings with us as His children. We cannot dictate to Him. Although He is utterly faithful in His purposes toward us, our human understanding of His will is limited.

5. We should consciously seek to broaden our understanding of spiritual gifts to include all service abilities for building up the church. Diversity of gifts must be expected and respected. The exercise of all gifts must be in the spirit of love and for the benefit of the church.

6. Spiritual gifts should not be valued above the Giver. Neither are they an end in themselves. Interest in gifts should not be allowed to obscure the more basic work of the Spirit in creating love for Jesus, joy in Him, peace of mind and heart, enthusiasm in witness, hunger for the Word, love for the brethren, and submission in humility to Jesus and to His body.

7. We should frankly acknowledge and ask God for deliverance from our blindness to His purposes for us, our prejudices, our disobedience, our lack of love for and submission to our fellow Christians, our failure to appropriate the joy, the freedom, and the power available to use in the gift of the Spirit. We should daily surrender ourselves anew to the lordship of Christ that the fullness of His life may be realized within us.

B. To Individuals Involved in Renewal Movements

1. Let us not encourage devotion to a movement. We are called to be followers of Jesus, not of movements or persons.

2. Let us guard against the arrogance of a superior spirituality centered upon experiences and gifts which readily leads to discord and strife. Let the restraints of James 3:13-18 and 2 Timothy 2:24-26 be known among us.

3. We should not be unduly hasty to declare our new experience. We should reflect upon and pray about it.

4. When we do share with others, we should not go beyond what they arc ready to accept or assimilate. When the response is negative, we should drop the matter until a more opportune time.

5. We should allow God to discipline us to fruitful submission to our local congregation, Let us pray for our leaders and assure them of our full respect and support. Let us expect the Spirit to break through barriers which separate us from one another.

6. Let us learn to walk in the Spirit as a constant life pattern. A new experience in the Spirit is only the beginning of a new chapter and not the end of the quest for divine enabling and the deeper life.

7. In our enthusiasm for the new things which God is bringing into our experience, let us not disregard the rich heritage of faith and life which has come to us in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.

C. To Congregational Leaders

1. Provide the congregation with an adequate and balanced teaching program on the ministry and gifts of the Spirit.

2. Be familiar with the contemporary charismatic movement and be sensitive both to its points of strength and its potential weaknesses.

3. Provide opportunity and encourage congregational participation in testimony, praise, and prayer for specific needs. Congregational leaders should be examples in sharing, confession, and praise.

4. Seek to be understanding of the variety of experiences among Christians, helping each to accept and learn from the other.

6. The Discovery and Exercise of Gifts

A. General Counsel

1. The body of Christ is functioning properly only when each member is exercising his or her gift in the service of the church.

2. The discovery and release of gifts is both a personal and corporate responsibility. Gifts may be identified personally by the individual involved or by one or more other persons in the congregation or by small groups of believers who give themselves to this task. Gifts sometimes emerge as persons give themselves to tasks at hand in the local congregation.

3. When gifts are identified the persons expressing them should be encouraged to fulfill their respective ministries and be affirmed in doing so by their fellow Christians.

B. The Role of the Congregational Leaders

1. An emphasis on a distribution of gifts in the congregation entails a modification of the pastor's conventional role. The pastor cannot be the sole minister of God to the people but is one among others exercising the gifts given to the whole congregation. Even the pastoral leadership may be shared among several persons or elders.

2. The congregational leaders not only should encourage the development and provide opportunity for the exercise of the diverse gifts within the congregation, but should also see that their exercise, both in manner and in balance, contributes constructively to the upbuilding of the church.

3. The congregational leaders should lead the congregation not only in the exercise of gifts within the gathered life of the assembly, but in an effective ministry of word and deed in the larger social community.

7. Conclusions

A. The significance of the Spirit's role in Christian faith, experience, and ministry is evident. Apart from sharing in the Spirit, no genuine participation in the blessings of the gospel and the life of the new order of God's kingdom is possible. Let us therefore encourage one another to "be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18 ).

B. The diversity of ways in which the Spirit works in our lives and in the gifts bestowed for service should be recognized. Insistence on uniformity is not consistent with the evidence either of the New Testament or of Christian experience.

C. The expression of "the fruit of the Spirit" is of fundamental importance to the proper exercise of spiritual gifts. To neglect or minimize the former will result in the abuse of the latter.

D. Christian experience, both contemporary and historical, should not be ignored in attempting to understand the Spirits work. The Scriptures, however, must remain the primary source of guidance in shaping our Christian insights and experience.

E. The Spirit is a gift to the whole church and nut an exclusive personal possession. The unity, edification, and mission of the church provide the framework for the valid exercise of the gifts of the Spirit.

F. Much yet remains to be explored. Let us carry forward our study in an humble and serious searching of the Scriptures, a willingness to learn from what God has done and is now doing in our midst, an openness to dialogue with one another in the spirit of mutual love and respect, and a daily cultivation of an ever-deepening sense of wonder and gratitude for the gift and blessings of the Spirit.


*The word "charismatic" is based on the Greek word charisma. which is usually translated (RSV) by the English word "gift." In Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:4; 1 Peter 4:10, etc., it is used in a semitechnical sense to designate the service abilities which are given to members of the body of Christ for ministry in building up the church. Since every Christian has been given some gift or gifts, every member may properly be called a charismatic. In popular usage today, however, the word is commonly used in a more restricted sense to refer to those who have experienced what is frequently called "the baptism of the Spirit" and who lay particular stress on the reception and exercise of gifts of the Spirit (prophecy, tongues, healing , etc. ). Return to text.

Context of this Statement

The Mennonite Church General Board in 1974 appointed a task force to give attention to the question of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. This task force prepared a Study report for presentation to and review by by the Mennonite Church General Assembly convened at Eureka, Illinois, on August 5-10, 1975. Following the Assembly a study guide was prepared and widely used throughout the church.

Congregations submitted counsel, suggestions, and responses as a result of their study experience. These insights were then reviewed by the task force and incorporated into a document for presentation to the 1977 General Assembly at Estes Park.

The delegates reviewed the material, made additional suggestions, and then acted to approve to the document as as Summary statement.

This Summary statement sought to express the consensus in the late 1970s within the Mennonite Church on this subject. It was intended as a guideline and resource for personal, congregational and churchwide use.

Task force that worked on this document, chaired by Howard Charles of Goshen, Indiana, did not include any Canadians.

Statements by the Mennonite Church General Assembly state the understanding of the Mennonite Church at the time of the action. Statements have informal authority and influence in the denomination; they have formal authority as confirmed or endorsed by area Mennonite Church area conferences and/or congregations.

Commentary written 1977 by Paul N. Kraybill

[edit] Bibliography

The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church. Scottdale, PA : Mennonite Publishing House, 1977.

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