the weblog of Alan Knox

A structure that emerges naturally based on the people involved

Posted by on Oct 30, 2012 in books, gathering | 4 comments

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite academic books on the church: Paul’s Idea of Community by Robert Banks (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004). I recently came across one of my favorite sections of this book, and I realized that I have not written about this particular topic in a while.

You see, when it comes to the church – and especially to gathering together with other believers – structure often takes center stage in any discussion. We tend to focus on questions like these: What should happen when we gather together? Who should speak when we gather? What order should things happen in? What if something goes wrong?

These are all questions related to structure. And, I think that Banks’ approach would help us deal with these kinds of questions any many others.

He writes:

So then, provided certain basic principles of teh Spirit’s operations are kept in view: balance, intelligibility, evaluation, orderliness, and loving exercise, Paul sees no need to lay down any fixed rules for the community’s proceedings. There is no one order proper for its meetings; any order is proper so long as these criteria are observed. Paul therefore has no interest in constructing a fixed liturgy. This would restrict the freedom of God’s communications. Each gathering of the community will have a structure, but it will emerge naturally from the particular combination of the gifts exercised. (page 105)

Interestingly, I’ve found that today’s concerns regarding gathering with believers are rarely the same as Paul’s concerns. Oh, we care about “orderliness,” but we define “orderly” in a different way than what Paul described when he used that term.

And, “any order is proper”? That seems so strange to us. No fixed liturgy? (Yes, some do not use the term “liturgy” but prefer the term “order of service.”) That seems strange to us to.

No one wants to “restrict the freedom of God’s communications.” But, when we realize that God chooses to speak to his children through each other, we recognize that we are limiting God’s communication when we limit who is allowed to speak.

In other words, like I said before, our concerns are much different from Paul’s concerns. By setting aside Paul’s concerns, we may create a nice, ordered (not orderly, but ordered) meeting, but we miss much of what God is communicating to us.

So, what kind of structure do we find in the church gatherings in Scripture. Well, Banks ends his statement above with this: “[B]ut [the structure] will emerge naturally from the particular combination of the gifts exercised.” And, the gifts are exercised by God people. The structure, then, emerges naturally through the people who are gathered together as God directs them to serve one another while they are gathered together.

This can’t be planned. It can’t be orchestrated. It can’t be predicted. It can’t be charted.

Like Banks says, it emerges naturally. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, it emerges supernaturally.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 10-30-2012


    This sounds great on paper, but in reality to find a gathering that will bring order supernaturally (at least for me) is almost impossible to find.

    Everyone I have tried to gather with want to form their own structure and soon we slide right back into institutional church thinking and acting.

    I struggle with this subject a ton. I really get what the author is saying, and I agree wholeheartedly, but to put this into action has to be something lacking order too.

    How to find a gathering without a man-made order.. that is the question.

    Mine has been to just meet with people wherever my family and I are at.. get-togethers, parties, dinners, charities.. wherever we go is our “church”. We do not have a gathering of the same people week in and week out.. thoughts?

  2. 10-30-2012

    Great post, Alan, on the money as usual.

    I have seen this in action, but it does include some (loose) structure. In the “church meetings” my husband runs, the leadership is all about facilitation, not performance. The meeting is always open for anyone to contribute, and every part of the meeting calls for participation, but there is usually someone moderating/facilitating. The quality of the meeting is dependent on the experience and wisdom of the facilitator and the group (who self-moderate once they are used to contributing/participating). The facilitator starts every meeting off by reminding the group that there is one true leader (Jesus) and many teachers (everyone else present). He then aims to get everyone else doing most of the talking. There is so much room for the Holy Spirit to speak when the structure is loose, rather than tight (or completely absent).

    – Kathleen

  3. 10-30-2012

    This is certainly worth pursuing. It does require patience, self-control, and a certain amount of understanding of what organic church isn’t on the part of at least most of the participants. Gathering around a meal has helped us…it is potluck and we eat first…no keeping folks waiting through prayer or teaching. We come hungry…after a hard days work, midweek…for our supper and our spiritual connections. Functioning around a meal, very informally gives everyone a familiar and comfortable opportunity to share and mingle. We corral children and quiet ourselves without ritual, but with focused intent. Our meetings are different every week, we rotate homes where we meet and this helps to eliminate the burden of hospitality and also the “church in our home” identity. We all feel sure that the Holy Spirit will lead and no one of us wants to lead so that while someone looking on might not feel that we are being spiritual enough, we can always look back and see that needs were getting met and God was glorified in our midst. Changes taking place in the group are mostly subtle. It is all very precious. We have been meeting this way now for over a year, maybe two. Many in the group are blood related and it includes 3 generations. None of us could have imagined this…but many of us read Pagan Christianity at the same time; had shared institutional church experience and felt mightily liberated by the concepts expressed in the Viola books along with some other writings and blogs…including this one.

  4. 10-31-2012


    I know many people who are in your same situation. I think God (with much praise!) for the people that he has brought into my life, who I spend time with weekly and sometimes daily both in planned and spontaneous gatherings. However, I understand there are also great blessings in the kind of gatherings that you describe. I would say that we all seek to build up one another in whatever opportunities God gives us.


    Your gatherings sound very similar to our weekly gatherings, although our “facilitators” change from week to week, and sometimes even during a weekly gathering.


    You said, “It does require patience, self-control, and a certain amount of understanding…” That’s a great synopsis… especially the patience and self-control parts when we have different understandings. But, I also agree with you that this is worth pursuing.