Church Without Walls
By Jim Petersen
Navpress, 1992

    The following is an excerpt from Petersen's book "Church Without Walls." This book is one of the most profound and relevant works I've read in the last four years, and even gives an overview of church history from Jesus up to today.

    JIM PETERSEN is an international vice president for the Navigators. He pioneered Navigator ministry in Brazil, and has been involved in similar ministries in other Latin American countries, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He is the author of several books, including Living Proof.

Church Without Walls


    That we have in fact suffered this narrowing process can be illustrated by examining two statements we make repeatedly about the church. Both statements are usually made with all the confidence of someone who is uttering sacred writ. The two statements are as follows:

  • The local church is God's primary means for accomplishing the Great Commission.
  • Parachurch groups were raised up to do what the local churches should be doing, but aren't.

    What do we mean by that first statement, "The local church is God's primary means for accomplishing the Great Commission"?

    What other means does God have at His disposal in drawing people to Himself? Well, there are many. He uses His creation.3 He uses calamity and judgment. He uses the Old Testament prophets, rulers, and historical events. He ses His Word, the Holy Spirit, and His people. Now, which of these is God's ''primary" means?

    Well, we reply, that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about our part in accomplishing the Great Commission. It has to do with ministry. So what we mean by the statement is, of all the forms of ministry Christians get involved in, what goes on in the local church is primary.

    But we're still in trouble. Is not the diversity in the body God's idea? The apostle writes, "There are different kinds of gifts different kinds of service. . . different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men." And did he not say, 'There should be no division in the body, but... its parts should have an equal concern for each other"? Are we making value judgments and comparisons between different members of the same body? Well, we reply, that's not what we mean either.

    When it gets down to it, the phrase is usually intended to mean the following: "There is no other authoritative structure in the New Testament for doing God's work other than the local church. Any work of the church must be under the headship of local, recognized spiritual leaders." This quotation came from my notes from a lecture. It could have come from any number of sources, as this position is common. In a similar vein, people will say, "I believe in the local church." That sounds simple enough, but what they often mean, but leave unsaid, is, "I don't believe in anything else."

    Our difficulties, at this point, lie in the fact that our entire discussion is based on assumptions we have picked up along the way in the course of church history, rather than on the Bible. The Reformers, remember, struggled with the question "How do we know a local church when we see one?" Since the "church universal" was too abstract to do anything with, their practical definition of the church inevitably had the local church as its starting point. Today we still tend to view the church through an exclusively local grid. This has a debilitating effect on the local church. A church that sees its own appointed leaders, staff, or majority vote as the sole source of spiritual leadership becomes an increasingly inward-looking church. Without the cross winds of other spiritual leadership, it ends up talking to itself. It will lack the range of vision and the experience needed to break out into the world.

    The second statement, "Parachurch groups were raised up to do what the local churches should be doing, but aren't," reflects the same problem. It has its origins in the same ecclesiology as the first.

    This ecclesiology begins by asking the question, "When is a church a church?" Our answers usually describe the church as consisting of believers who meet in a certain place where certain things happen. There is corporate worship, teaching of the Word, the sacraments, and there is leadership. A certain structure is implied.

    Since these are not the central activities of parachurch ministries, they don't fit readily into our commonly accepted ecclesiology So, we reason, such groups aren't really church. Come to think of it, we're not sure what they are! So, for many, a cloud hangs over this whole issue of parachurch. Parachurch and paramedic-handy to have around at times, but make sure it's a real doctor who does the surgery on me!

    To say the parachurch groups exist because the local churches aren't doing the job again reveals the limitations of our prevailing understanding of God's people. It reflects the assumption that a really good local church is supposed to be doing everything. But any local body that attempts to do everything will simply fail in critical aspects. That is because a local body, like an individual believer, is a part of a greater whole. A local body needs to understand its sphere of ministry, its contribution - and the limits of that contribution-if it is to be effective.

    We made a major mistake when we first admitted the term parachurch into our vocabulary. How can one part of a body be "para" to the other parts? This awkward division of local and parachurch structures has resulted from our narrow understanding of the church. This narrowing costs us dearly, as it leaves the unbelieving world in no-man's-land.


    How we answer this question is determined to a large degree by the questions we use as we begin our search. If we begin by asking, "When does a particular group of people cross the line and constitute a church?" our thinking will pursue a certain path. The problem with such a question is, it's just not big enough. If we are to come to an adequate understanding of God's people, we must begin with questions that embrace the whole of God's workings in the world. We need to see ourselves as God's people, in a broad context. Our understanding of the church needs to be large enough to embrace all the Bible has to say about what it means to be His people, and what it means to be in the world. The breadth of our definitions must be dictated not by the institutional boundaries that circumscribe certain activities, but by the totality of our calling.

    I believe there is a single truth that must lie at the heart of any adequate definition of the church. In essence, the church is people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who is transforming their character and giving them gifts they are to use for service. Every believer is to use whatever he or she has to serve one another- and his or her neighbors. Most of the big passages that have to do with God's people in the New Testament revolve around this truth.

    Paul summarizes this in Ephesians: "We will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. "

    So what's new? we ask. All this sounds familiar enough until we examine the implications of these passages. The verses may be familiar, but their practice is not. I believe there are four factors that must be present if we are to function as a church according to this definition.

Christ Must Be the Head

    The Apostle Paul reassures the Ephesian Christians that "to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. . . . [He] gave gifts to men." "All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He gives them to each man, just as He deternines." Notice that references to Christ and to the Holy Spirit are interchanged in these passages.

    The Holy Spirit is the source of life for God's people. Without Him there is nothing. With Him, every believer becomes an essential, contributing part of the whole. There are to be no bleachers - no place to just sit and watch.

    Christ is the Head - not the figurehead, not the chairman of the board. He is the "hands-on" Director and Orchestrator of all that goes on. He calls no board meetings, as there is no board. He deals, instead, with every member, every individual directly through the Holy Spirit. We all have the "mind of Christ." This tells us a lot about what leadership is to be and what it is not to be among God's people. Leadership has to do with serving the body by exercising one's function. This does not negate the need for human authority among God's people, but it puts it into perspective. Nor does it rule out positions of leadership. It does mean those who occupy positions are not "the top." There is no "top." As Paul said, "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm."

The Body Must Live in Community

    Another dimension of this truth is community. The body "builds itself up in love." Koinonia, as used for example by John, means "life in the family. " Body life is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and embraces the full spectrum of our activities. As we go through life as believers, we are to attentively serve one another, encouraging one another toward godliness in every area. As believers formed themselves into identifiable bodies in the first centuries, their times of gathering were just the tip of the iceberg of their life together.

    Our life as a family in God's household is critical to our going to the world. As we have previously observed, it is the unique nature of this life together that makes us light in the world. Then as we allow ourselves to be scattered into the world, our need for one another becomes a matter of life and death. We will need like never before the care and support of our brothers and sisters.

There Must Be Diversity of Functions

    The central truth we are discussing also takes us back to the matter of the diversity of functions in the body. Since we have already discussed this subject at length, it is sufficient here to call our attention to the fact that so many of the instructions given to believers in the New Testament can't even find their expression in the sanctuary, or on the premises of the church property. Some examples of these instructions include: "Offer hospitality to one another"; "Live in harmony with one another"; "Do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers"; and "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners."

    When it comes to leadership functions, the same applies. Some find their expression more readily when God's people are gathered, while others are more naturally fitted for when they are scattered. The important thing to observe here is that it takes the whole list, as given in Ephesians 4, to equip people for ministry. It takes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.

All of This in the Presence of the Unbelieving World

    If our lives as God's people are to be lived out in full view of the world, we need to take conscious, deliberate steps to be sure this is happening. This calls for resetting the boundaries of our definitions of the church.


    Perhaps the big difference in what we're saying has to do with where the boundary markers are being placed as we define the church. What is in-bounds? What is out-of-bounds? I am proposing that the boundary markers for the church should be determined by where the gifts and callings of God's people take them. If believers were encouraged and enabled to seize the opportunities God brings their way in the neighborhood and across society, and if they could proceed confident of support from others in the body, the church would be redefined. It would change from being a bounded set to being a centered set.

Bounded Sets and Centered Sets

    What we are arriving at here is truly a paradigmatic change in the way we perceive the church. We are accustomed to defining the church within a certain circle. We work at clarifying who is in, who is out; what the leadership structure is to be and not to be; what we believe and do not believe; which activities belong, which do not; and what behavior is appropriate and what is not. So the line between insiders and outsiders is clearly drawn.

    Paul Hiebert of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School calls this kind of thinking "bounded-set thinking." That is, there is a boundary that sets the standard. One either qualifies or is rejected; it's pass or fail. What I'm advocating in this chapter is that we move from bounded-set thinking to what Hiebert refers to as "centered-set thinking" in our understanding of the church.

    In a centered set, what counts is how each member is moving in relation to the center. The focus is upon the center, and each individual is in dynamic relationship to it. Belonging, in this case, is not a matter of performing according to an agreed-upon profile, it is a matter of living and acting out of commitment to a common center. The focus is on the center and on pointing people to that center. Process is more important than definitions. Centered-set thinking affirms initiatives that would otherwise not find a place. It rewards creativity.

    It is not that bounded sets are always bad and centered sets are always good. Boundaries do exist. Salvation is a bounded set. One is either in Christ, or not in Christ. Discipleship is a centered set. To be a disciple is to be constantly moving toward the center, which is Christ.

    What we are talking about can be visualized by the following diagram.

Bounded and Centered Set

Bounded Set and Centered Set and the Church

    This distinction is helpful in communicating some of what I have been saying in this chapter. To view the church from the perspective of the centered-set model opens the possibility for recovering its multiform nature, and thereby its mobility.

    If we use this model, our understanding of what is the center must be very clear. The church is not that center. The center is the Head of the body. All members of the body are to function in relation to the center: Christ. If there is confusion on this point and we think of the church as being the center, we will find ourselves merely creating another bounded set.

    We have described God's people as being people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who is transforming their character and giving them gifts they are to use in serving their brothers and sisters - and their neighbors. To accept that description means accepting the idea that exercising our gifts and functions, according to the enabling of the Holy Spirit in response to needs and opportunities, will determine our boundaries.

Leadership and Authority in a Centered-Set Model

    The reader could easily be thinking that what I'm advocating here would result in pandemonium, with everyone moving in whichever direction he or she pleases, doing whatever strikes him or her as a good idea at the moment. That would be pandemonium. We are a body, knit together by the Holy Spirit through our strengths and weaknesses and bound by love. We are all to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. " We need leadership. I think Ephesians 4:16 talks about leadership when it says we are "held together by every supporting ligament." And there is authority. We're told, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority." Leadership and authority are inseparable, as one cannot exist without the other.

    We will be discussing how to respond to these things in an orderly way in the final three chapters of this book, but the heart of the matter lies in what we have said about form and function. In the New Testament we saw how the ministry was accomplished by believers exercising certain functions. Form and structure followed, giving substance and permanence to their efforts. It is that process that needs to be repeated and reproduced, not the existing forms.

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