a non-linear story, bankrupt Christian traditions, biblical authority, by grace, Christian community, Christian Humility, Christian Submission, Phyllis Tickle, Redemption of Creation, Richard Foster, Spirit Power, the Christian story, The Great Emergence, the story of God, Twelve Disciplines
1. What is/was Guidance? Before I could type more than the above section title I went back to Richard Fosterʼs classic work, Celebration of Discipline, chapter 12: Guidance.
I am so glad I did. As soon as I began reading, my heart swelled and my spirit soared. I remembered immediately what I believe to be the book’s finest chapter. It begins:
In our day heaven and earth are on tiptoe waiting for the emergence of a Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit-empowered people. All creation watches expectantly for the springing up of a disciplined, freely gathered, martyr people who know in this life the life and power of the kingdom of God. It has happened before. It can happen again.
And that is just the first paragraph. I remember the hopeful sense this material gave me when I first read it in the early 1980s. Foster was perhaps the very first person in the mid-1970s to write of a renewal and a coming together of many Christian traditions into an authentic new expression of faith.
Foster makes a distinction between individual guidance and corporate guidance. He notes that in our individualistic culture our Christian literature is all about how to know Godʼs will for our individual lives. It is as though we can not imagine that God might have a will for our Christian community or for our nation or for his people throughout the world, perhaps because we are so used to being divided up that we cannot imagine being brought together again by the Spirit of God.
Foster notes that unlike Israel in the wilderness which was led by the Spirit in a pillar of cloud and fire, the faithful today have neither experience nor an expectation for that sort of leading. True, Israel in the wilderness received visible and clear corporate guidance. They were somewhat like the early church after the coming and filling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And to what might we compare Israel several hundred years after they entered the land?
The book of Judges refers to that time as one in which “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” We can compare that period to our own with accuracy and profit.
And how did Israel deal with the confusion it was experiencing in the time of the Judges? They asked for a king. And when the kings were faithful, the people’s lives were peaceful and just and the nation prospered. And when the kings were evil, well… we know the story.
And in the age of the Spirit, since the King Jesus began to rule in heaven? As Foster notes the Spirit of God transformed the bewildered ambassadors for God, hiding in an upper room in Jerusalem, into the the fastest growing movement everywhere in the Roman Empire in just one generation. The Spirit guided the leaders of the early Christian communities into glories beyond anything they could have asked or imagined at the very beginning.
Before we move to our second question we might well ask, given no visible cloudy pillar, how exactly did the Spirit get everyone’s attention to accomplish his will? Foster believes the Holy Spirit took the kingdom from the upper room in Jerusalem to the household of Caesar in Rome through Guidance, not of this or that individual apostle but through the corporate guidance of the entire community. As the author notes, one of our favorite verses, “…for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). follows a verse (which I would note we rarely comment on and tend to read right past): “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19).
As Foster understands this passage, Jesus is not referring to some casual agreement made by two Christians who happen to meet on the street and find they both want something in common. The Lord intends this promise to be for those who are in community, who are already committed to an important issue but who want guidance concerning a decision. It is that wisdom, that guidance which Foster believes is promised to those who trust the Lord for their life in the Body of Christ.
Foster also notes that the apostles had learned from Jesus that when they sought God, they should do so through fasting, prayer and corporate worship. Read through Acts. You will see the apostles and other leaders did go to prayer with fasting in worship whenever they hit a roadblock or became confused about an issue. They would gather, sometimes for hours, seeking God. They would look for a single answer on which they could reach consensus. For example, this is how the early leadership overcame official sanction (4:23-31), how they chose emissaries to spread the message (13:2-3) and how they made the critical decision about circumcision (Acts 15). Through Guidance they overcame every obstacle which they faced.
2. How was Guidance Lost? It is hard to answer this question. We really do not have reliable testimony for how the faithful answered their great questions after Lukeʼs record in Acts of the very earliest years. My personal guess is, they began to assume they knew what they were doing and then they began to use other methods to guide them in their decisions. The Romans and Greeks had been famous for centuries for debate and discussion and had used these methods as well as oratory to sway crowds of people to one view or another.
Did third or fourth-generation Christian leaders cease to go to worship in a state of fasting with prayer when the hard decisions faced them? I do not know but it seems likely.
What we all do know from our own experience is that the tendency to assume we know what we are doing is our default. Many assume they can find certainty through the use of logic, evidence and “reason.” We are modernists (even those of us who think we are “post-modern”) when it comes to making important decisions. We either think things through or “trust our gut.” And we are pretty much all individualists who are confident that we know much more than we really do. Yet as Foster points out in his chapter on Guidance,
No one person possessed everything. Even the most mature needed the help of others. The most insignificant had something to contribute. No one could hear the whole council of God in isolation.
Surely, what was so in the early Christian centuries and is so today.
3. Should Guidance be reclaimed? Every now and then, as Richard Foster notes, the Spirit visits his people again in a powerful way. And, as Phyllis Tickle has documented, the great times of change have come every five hundred years like a faithful geyser. I hope and pray both Foster and Tickle are right. Would it not be an amazing thing if something so hopeful and powerful was happening in our age and we could be a part of it?
Again, though, an important question is “how?” Foster has several examples from through the centuries for how Godʼs people have sought corporate guidance for their own ministries or for a decision to marry or even for major business decisions. He notes that the pursuit of Guidance may begin with discussion and the presentation of facts and various viewpoints but finally, the quest for Guidance is a service of worship in which all parties, including those who have strong opinions (which should be freely and clearly shared) must come to the Lord as worshipers, realizing they stand before the throne of grace, before the judge who sifts all ideas, all motives and all “facts.” Those who so come to worship God must therefore abandon as conceits any sense of certainty or knowledge, realizing that the Lord of Glory has agreed to attend to them and that the Lord will rule in their hearts. Foster says boldly,
God will implant a spirit of unity when the right path has been chosen and trouble us with restlessness when we have not heard correctly. Unity rather than majority rule is the principle of corporate guidance. Spirit-given unity goes beyond mere agreement. It is the perception that we have heard the Kol Yahweh, the voice of God.
Foster shares a clear description of this process by which a community might seek such certainty. Foster, after all, is a Quaker and it is the Quaker practice of Guidance which Foster vividly describes. He notes that although in 1758, at a time when a few wealthy Quakers in the American colonies held many slaves as their property, slavery became an issue at the yearly gathering of the Society of Friends. After numerous hours of prayer for Guidance, with all concerns and opinions firmly and passionately stated, the entire communion determined to not only rid themselves of slaves but to remunerate those they had held in bondage for their years of service!
Within twenty years of that meeting, all of those Quaker families joined into the new and independent United States of America, not holding a single slave among them.
Can you imagine such unanimity among a substantial group of present-day Christians on any current, contested issue where some people’s personal wealth was on the line but not that of others?
Come, Holy Spirit. We are desperate for you!
Please join me in praying that the Spirit of God will fall afresh on his people; that we might again be melted, molded, filled and used as the transforming body of Christ.
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1 Back to Post I commend to you Richard Fosterʼs landmark work, Celebration of Discipline, (Revised Edition, © 1978, Harper & Row, New York). Every word of this book is worthy. It is a classic work which has and will stand the test of time. The book may even prove prophetic, especially chapter 12! Foster truly shines a light on the great value and desperate need which we in the Christian community have today for the kind of guidance which is available to the people of God when they realize how close heaven really is.
2 Back to Post This is a major theme of the Old Testament books of Chronicles.