Consider the following two case studies drawn from real life here in Israel.
A thriving congregation with significant outreach programs to the needy, including alcoholics and drug addicts, made great gains for the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem. Then one of the leadership team and a few who supported him came to disagree with the senior leader. They decided to split from the congregation and form their own assembly. As a result, there are now two separate congregations that are not nearly as effective as before. The leaders of the new congregation simply appointed themselves to leadership in the split-off group. There is no council that could have judged this situation or prevented the sad results.
An effective congregation ministering to Russian Jews with a large Russian Jewish population found itself in a similar situation to the one described above. A leadership couple split from the congregation and took a good size contingent with them. They were largely self-appointed to lead a new congregation. There was little pressure from the Messianic Jewish leadership in the Land to deal with this couple.
The Wild West and the Book of Judges
Sometimes it seems as though Israeli congregations are like the Wild West or the book of Judges:
“Everyone does what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Of course, this is not unique to Israel; it is common everywhere in the Western world and especially in the United States. Anyone in the USA can hang a shingle and proclaim themselves a leader. Even Hollywood mocked the phenomena of self-appointment in the film “The Apostle”. In one of the most memorable scenes, Robert Duvall baptizes himself as an apostle. This depiction illustrates a Christianity where there is no accountability and no vetting for character standards.
Last week, a colleague spoke to me about a conversation he had with another Israeli who has decided to start a congregation – as a pastor (self appointed). This prospective leader could raise funds overseas from pro-Israel Christians and live in relative prosperity. My colleague assured me that this is not uncommon. While worthy projects and ministries deserve support, sometimes money corrupts. There must be a better order of interconnecting and government to prevent such abuses and to handle disputes. Much of the money raised by Messianic Jews and Christians in Israel does not really go to fruitful ministry, but simply to support the fundraiser. That is pretty shocking. It takes lots of time to keep up with donors. Who has time for fruitful ministry? Does anyone have authority to deal with this integrity issue? Not yet! Many of us know of these people, but nothing is done about it.
No to Self-Appointment and Independence
Many years ago, I came to the conclusion that there was no such thing as an acceptable, independent congregation in the Bible and that self-appointed leaders or unaccountable leaders are not in accord with the Scriptures. Scripture informs us that the apostles planted congregations and appointed elders. Timothy, a fellow apostle with Paul who was his mentor, was given clear standards for the appointment of overseers (I Timothy 3); Titus was charged to appoint elders in every city and again given standards that were much the same as those given to Timothy (Titus 1). Because the congregations planted in the first century were planted by apostles and thereby linked to the apostles who had planted them, none of these congregations considered themselves independent. Hence when the great dispute arose concerning receiving Gentiles, a judgment was rendered that had authority in all of the communities of the New Covenant (Acts 15). In addition, apostles brought correction to the congregations they planted.
Linked and Accountable Congregations in the Early Centuries
By the end of the first century, every city or region considered themselves as one congregation and was overseen by an eldership of the city. We can already see this in Ephesus when Paul called the elders of the city of Ephesus to meet with him (Acts 20:17). Some church historians think that the Yeshua-believers numbered in the thousands and met in many local house groups and gatherings. This was also the case in Jerusalem where there were myriads of Yeshua-believers among the Jews (Acts 21:20). By the time of the writing of the Book of Revelation, we see a person called a messenger who seems to be a first among equals among the elders of the city.1
When doctrinal disputes arose in the early centuries, regional councils of leaders who could decide the issues for the whole region made church government decisions. The idea of councils became the key to the ongoing unity of the people of God. Universal Councils came later. No doubt the model of Acts 15 was perceived as the foundation. The Protestant Reformers sought to implement these models, both the model of the elders of the city and councils for dealing with important matters. The citywide church government in Geneva under John Calvin is an important example.
Joining Congregations and Leaders in Networks Today
This gives some background for why I am so zealous to see congregations and leaders joined together in networks. Such networks need quality standards for the ordination of leaders. In addition, they need to give great liberty for leaders to develop their own program directions for their local communities. Doctrinal standards should be clear but not overly restrictive. They should commit to all the basic truths of the Bible generally received by the mainstream of the Messianic Jewish Movement. The new doctrinal statement accepted by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations in the United States is a very good model.
One of the important requirements for an accountable network is the ministry giftings in the leadership team or governing council. The key is that fruitful five fold leaders be in charge. Bureaucrats leading networks stifle growth, since such folks are inherently conservative and often seek to preserve the status quo. This is the sad situation of many of today’s denominations. Administrators do have a constructive role in serving congregations, but the most fruitful five fold leaders are the best leaders for a network. They will have a holy dissatisfaction that always seeks to move things forward in growth and expansion. They will want their network to include significant training and equipping. Evangelists, prophets and apostles especially model this holy dissatisfaction and strive to move things forward. However, teachers and pastors also add to the quality of the foundations and seek to see healthy communities discipled in the Word.
Calling for Righteousness and Justice
Every now and again, Patty and I ask ourselves, “What are we doing here?” It is obvious. We are here to help foster this kind of connection and accountability within Israeli Messianic Judaism. It is a deep conviction for us. We will not abandon the vision. We desire to see a growing Messianic Jewish congregational movement in Israel that has solid theology and government, and is rightly linked with the church streams of other nations – a movement that will be effective in winning people to Yeshua. We greatly desire your prayers in this task.
1 The term “angel of the church” used in Revelation 2,3 does not necessarily refer to a supernatural being. The Greek word, “angelos” and the Hebrew word “Malach” both literally mean messenger and can take this meaning in scripture (see, Malachi 3:1). In Revelation 2,3 the context of the letters indicate an appointed leader is in view, not a supernatural being.