In light of recent events, I’ve been taking another look at this common phrase which is often used to maintain confidence in the overall fellowship structure, regardless of any immoral conduct or even severe criminal offense on the part of a member. I’ve come to think that instead of this phrase being a useful way to make sense of terrible things, it is actually acting as a harmful thought-stopping cliché.
As I hear these words once again emerge like a soothing mantra in the wake of Dean’s horrific sexual crimes (along with other newer allegations), I feel a need to dive deeper. What does this phrase even mean? Specifically, what exactly is the “Way” referring to? Is our definition something that is actually perfect? Is it the same as the Biblical definition of the Way? Is it stout enough to warrant our faith and devotion? In common usage, phrases like “The Way” or “the Truth” are almost always used interchangeably with “the group”, or, more specifically, with the defining and essential characteristics of the group.
There are several defining characteristics of “The Way” that most of us have learned from our youth. They include (but probably are not limited to,) these points:
- The ministry sent out two by two
- The homeless and itinerant ministry
- The unmarried (celibate) ministry
- The absence of “tithing” or salaried preachers
- Ministry going “by faith” (not supporting themselves by working at a “job”)
- The church in the home (specifically for the purpose of “breaking bread” both through personal testimony and partaking of the bread and wine)
- The absence of church-owned property, such as church buildings or cathedrals
- The absence of a formal structure of organization or governance, including not having a formal name or tax classification for the group
Since the term “The Way” in the professing lexicon is often intended to refer to the “system” or “style of worship” or “group of people who worship together in this format”, it is important to define terms, and be specific. Does “The Way” (or, the path or method or means by which we obtain salvation) actually refer to a list of requirements about church practice? If so, what is the list? How many items are on the list? Is it still “The Way” if one of those items is missing? What about two items? What if a requirement is changed, or added? If another group subscribes to nearly all of these requirements, but they miss or change one, can they still be called followers of “The Way”? Which ones could be skipped, changed, or added, and which ones are truly fundamental?
Below I’ve taken a brief look at four of what I believe to be the most commonly referred to “identifying features” of “The Way”, as the term is commonly used. These are: the two by two ministry, the homeless ministry, the celibate ministry, and the church in the home.
The “two by two” ministry
For as long as I can remember, I’ve known and believed the clear teaching of Scripture that Jesus sent his apostles out in pairs. I remember learning the list of apostle names in a song when I was a child. I even remember a worker pointing out that when the twelve apostles are listed in Matthew 10, they seem to be listed in “pairs” (each pair denoted by a semi-colon), making this possibly the first “workers’ list” that was ever made (by Jesus himself). We can see that Jesus sent out his messengers by twos in Mark 6:7 and Luke 10:1.
I remember when the parallelism first occurred to me, years ago, in Jesus’ choice of sending 12 apostles to the 12 tribes of Israel. This realization was something entirely new to me. I had never heard any reference to this idea in meetings, that maybe Jesus had some intention, some meaning, in choosing twelve. That maybe there was more to this ministry than setting up a format to be followed by all ages and generations. Maybe this choosing and sending of the twelve was a specific message to Israel. Indeed, in John’s Revelation, the twelve apostles are seen sitting on twelve thrones, and judging the twelve tribes of Israel. This all made me curious about what else I might be missing about Jesus’ intention for sending the ministry.
I realized a few years later, while reading through the Old Testament, that Jesus’ sending of the 70 in a similar manner (Luke 10) was directly paralleled by Moses bringing 70 elders of Israel along with him as they went up the mountain to receive God’s Law (Exodus 24:9)
More recently, someone pointed out to me the importance of having “two witnesses” in the Jewish culture. Whenever any accusation or witness testimony was given in Jewish culture, two witnesses (at least) were necessary to count as a credible source (Deuteronomy 19:15). I began to consider whether this might be the intention behind Jesus sending his apostles in “twos”. They preached a message of “repentance”; is this not equivalent to pronouncing them already “guilty” of something, and under penalty unless they change their course? Were they not acting, essentially, as “criminal witnesses”? Would these Jewish men and women have listened to only one man telling them they needed to repent?
I would have thought that this was simply an interesting possibility, had I not considered the example left to us in the book of Acts. According to the record of what the apostles did and taught after the resurrection of Jesus, and in their ministry to the Gentiles (not the Jews), going by “twos” seemed to become the exception, not the rule. Here are the statistics, to the best of my knowledge:
- one person is recorded as preaching alone a total of 10 times (and a few of those people were not apostles)
- two people are mentioned 8 times
- three people preached together 7 times
- four people worked together 1 time
- seven people went 1 time
- eight people went 1 time
- ten people went 1 time
- two people plus an unspecified number of people went 1 time, and
- three people plus an unspecified number of people went 1 time
Putting this all together, it turns out that the apostles only went out “two and two” 8 times out of 31 times, or 25.8% of the time. Additionally, at the moment when the Gospel first went to the Gentiles (the story of Peter going to Cornelius in Acts 10), Peter went alone. Surely if there was a need to establish the two by two ministry as a pattern for all time, and all people, this would have been the moment to be clear! But Peter was alone.
So Jesus sent 12 apostles, to the 12 tribes of Israel, to represent the entirety, or completeness, of God’s people. In times past, the 12 tribes were the completeness of God’s people. His covenant was with the Jewish people alone out of all the people on earth. But Jesus represented the completeness of God’s people with a message of salvation for all who believed. To the Jews first, but also to the gentiles. Jesus was redefining the boundaries of those who were called his people, to include all who would believe on Jesus anywhere, at any time.
And Jesus sent out the 70, representative of those with Moses when he received the Law, to suggest that a new Law was being received in this moment. That he was the bearer of a new covenant. And indeed, Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people – an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.” (Luke 22:20)
And they were sent in twos to a Jewish audience to be an acceptable witness of sin and the need to repent, according to the Law of Moses.
The sending of the ministry in pairs thus takes on a much different meaning.
The ministry without a home
The homeless ministry is probably the chief identifying feature of this “Way”. We have been taught to use Scriptures such as “we have left all to follow you” (Luke 18:28), and “they immediately left the ship and their father and followed him” (Matthew 4:22) as proof-texts for the necessity of there being a ministry which “leaves all”. However, “leaving all” is not the same as “selling all” and no longer having anything. The only time anyone was instructed to literally sell all and distribute to the poor was in the story of the rich young ruler, who was not necessarily being called into the apostolic ministry, but more likely had a spiritual problem of being too attached to his material wealth. (Mark 10)Notice in Matthew 9:9, when Matthew the tax collector is called by Jesus to follow him as a disciple (in the meetings, we would likely say that this is when Matthew was “called into the work”), he immediately “got up and followed him”. But in the very next verse, Matthew invited Jesus and the other disciples into his home for dinner!
Of course, this story takes place prior to Matthew 10, the sending of the ministry. So some would say that Matthew was really only being called to “profess”. But in Matthew 10, he and the other 11 were called into the ministry, when they would have needed to sell their homes and all their belongings in order to follow Jesus as an “example minister”, being homeless, itinerant, destitute, and celibate.
But consider the apostle John, one of the 12, and what Jesus said to him at the crucifixion. By this time, the apostles had certainly been “sent out” on a mission where they were commanded to leave their families, hometowns, livelihoods, etc. and preach in new areas. Jesus’ instruction was for the apostles to find a “worthy” person in whatever town or village they entered, and then “stay at their house until you leave (that city)”. (Matthew 10:11) This in itself is noteworthy, as Jesus clearly states in another place to “stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you… Do not move around from house to house” (Luke 10:7). Never do we see a situation described in the New Testament where a pair of workers move around to new houses every 1-3 nights within the same geographic region. There is always a suggestion of having some sort of more permanent home base.
Additionally, as can be seen in Luke 10:17, the apostles returned from their mission after a period of some months, back to their hometowns, families, etc. The requirements laid out in Matthew 10 and Luke 10 were describing a temporary mission, and many of the commands of Jesus for this particular mission (such as going to the Jews only, not the Gentiles) were clearly specific, not universal, in nature.
So, from the cross, Jesus looked down at his mother, grieving and vulnerable (and almost certainly widowed, and watching her firstborn son being killed), and then he looked at his apostle John, and he said, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “here is your mother”. And from that time on, John took her into his home. (John 19:27)
So, John had a home! After he “went in the work”! And after Jesus was crucified, John brought Mary back to his home, and took care of her. And then maybe he went out on more missions. Or maybe, for several years, he just continued to spread the Good News in his immediate area. But at the end of those missions, or the end of the day, he would always come back home. To the place where he had responsibility, people depending on him. The “homeless ministry” as a definition for “The Way” begins to break down.
Some workers have correctly noted that the literal translation for John 19:27 is actually “John took her unto his own”. The word “home” is not present, but it is implied. Even if John didn’t own the equivalent of a “single-family dwelling”, Jesus knew that John had the means to care for his mother on an ongoing basis. That implies having some sort of living space to offer her.
It seems clear from Scripture that there were apostles who led a nomadic life, who left their homes (and possibly families) for long periods of time, who suffered and were destitute, all for the sake of spreading the name of the Lord Jesus as widely as possible. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:11 that “to this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands…” I think it’s safe to say that the apostles experienced homelessness at times. But it’s not clear that they were commanded to rid themselves of any lodgings they might have and become permanently homeless on a wide scale.
Is the “homeless ministry” a stout enough requirement to be included as one of the essential defining factors of “The Way”?
The unmarried ministry
Another important feature of “The Way”, at least in the current generation, seems to be that ministers remain unmarried and celibate. This often prompts a deep level of respect and even adoration of friends toward the “miracle of the ministry” because it is “such an unnatural way of life, but God gives strength”.
I also have believed deeply in the beauty and necessity of the ministry remaining unmarried in order to be radically free to devote their lives to the Gospel work. However, I am seeing several difficulties with holding to this “command” of all workers permanently surrendering the possibility of marriage in order to preach the Good News. The most obvious problem I see is simply this: I can’t find a single place where Jesus ever commanded it.
Many have pointed out that Jesus himself was not married, and Paul was not married, and they both seemed to speak of the celibate life as a higher calling, and so the workers are simply following the “example of Jesus and the apostles”. There’s a problem with this thinking though, and his name is Peter. Jesus called him. To be an apostle. When he was already married. (Also Jesus’ brothers and “other apostles” were married, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:5, but Peter is the best-known example of what we might call a “married worker”).
Most of us would acknowledge that some of the apostles were married, and even that there were married workers in the “early days” of the fellowship. But in response to the suggestion that workers in our day be married, I’ve often heard the argument of inconvenience: “How would that even work? Can you imagine moving around from house to house as a married couple? The complexity of dating, courting, finding a spouse while active in the work? And what about if children come into the picture? It’s not at all practical for our lifestyle.” I’ve heard these responses, and they have satisfied me in the past. However, in recent years, the cognitive dissonance has become great, because the “The Way” purports to be built on “following the example ministry Jesus established down to the last detail, no matter how inconvenient.” Having married people in the ministry is a specific example, a choice that Jesus made, which is denied by friends and workers because it is “inconvenient”! And, the workers themselves have condemned other churches for using the exact same logic!! (“it’s not practical in our day”) for things like rejecting the teaching of the “homeless ministry”.
If Jesus chose married people to carry his message, but in our current definition/expression of “the work” it is deemed “too complicated and inconvenient” for a married couple to function in the system as it is… does that mean Jesus did not make the best choice? Or is there possibly some mismatch between our idea of the “correct system of ministry” and the reality of apostolic ministry in the first century?
I’ve found it fascinating that right there in plain sight, in Paul’s letter to Timothy, Paul actually calls the practice of “forbidding marriage” a “devil’s doctrine”. (1 Timothy 4:3) Wow! It took me a long time to notice this! And elsewhere, he is clear that if a person is burning with passion (and if you have been in the work, or are deeply acquainted with some who are, you know this is a real and constant reality for many, many workers), it is better to marry. (1 Corinthians 7:9)
But out of the (I think, sincere and commendable) determination to take the “high road” of the “Perfect Way”, the workers currently refuse to allow married people in their ranks. Recent events make it exceedingly clear to me why Satan might be interested in getting a group of people to forbid marriage. God made us sexual beings, and without the outlet of sexuality in a healthy marriage, sexual desire often becomes distracting to the point of dysfunction, or distorted to the point of immorality and abuse. Jesus says that “there are those who choose to live like eunuchs (celibate) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this, should accept it” (Matthew 19:12) and Paul says, “I wish that all of you (this letter was written to “friends”, not “workers”!!) were as I am (celibate, unmarried), but each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” (1 Corinthians 7:7)
From the words of both Jesus and Paul, it is clear that “the ministry” as a whole was never intended to necessarily live without a spouse or healthy sexuality in their lives. The married life is an option for those who are in the ministry and those who are not. Likewise, the celibate life is an option for those who are in the ministry and those who are not, as long as they are called by God to do so and have the “gift of celibacy” from God. But at the moment when living without a spouse actually becomes a distraction from serving God, it is better to marry.
So can this idea of an unmarried ministry stand up to scrutiny? Should it be retained as one of the foundational tenets of “The Way”?
Meetings in the home
Another important element of “The Way” as we’ve known it, is the practice of meeting in homes for the purpose of “breaking bread” both through the giving of personal testimony, and the sharing of the “emblems” of bread and wine/juice. This practice is one that is often encountered in other groups as well, and, in my view, is quite simple and beautiful. However, in the meetings, the belief is that taking the bread and wine must only occur in a home. The bread and wine are not to be taken in a public building or outside, but only in the residence of someone who is well known to the workers, and appointed by them to have a “meeting” in their home. The owner of the home then usually (not always) is appointed the “elder” of that meeting.
It is true that believers met in homes in the New Testament. They also met in other places, like the Jewish synagogues and Roman schools. They met outside. History tells us they met in the tombs. From everything we can gather, it seems that the early followers met wherever and whenever they could. For a time, and in certain circumstances, they met daily and lived communally. (Acts 2) It is also true that we only ever read of them “breaking bread” (sharing communion, the bread and wine, or as we say, the “emblems”) in a home, and only on Sundays. (see Acts 2:46 and 20:7, e.g.)
It can certainly be taken as the example of Scripture to gather in homes for fellowship and for sharing the bread and wine as a remembrance of Jesus. But nowhere is it commanded. I have heard many workers liken the taking of bread & wine (in remembrance of the Lamb who delivers us from death in sin), to the Passover meal, where they ate a lamb to remember their deliverance from death in Egypt. They use this connection to give strength to the necessity of meeting for communion in a home. It is true that the Jews were commanded to eat the Passover feast in a home. However, many problems arise from making this command – to the Jewish people celebrating a Jewish feast – something legalistic (and foundational) in regard to having a “fellowship meeting” in the 21st century.
Some of the things that come to mind:
- We aren’t Jews.
- We aren’t sacrificing a lamb or putting blood on the doorpost.
- The bread we eat is leavened, not unleavened.
- We aren’t remembering our escape from Egypt.
- We don’t require the literal safety of being within our own home with blood on the doorpost to escape from the literal Death Angel striking down all the firstborn children on that same night.
- We aren’t under any part of Jewish Law, which includes all direction about sacrifices and feasts. Jesus came to fulfill the Law.
In short, I’ve come to this: something being described is different from something being prescribed. Christians (and Jews) often met in homes for important meals and celebrations. Nowhere are Christians commanded to do the same every time they have fellowship. While there is nothing wrong with home fellowship, or taking the bread and wine in a home (in fact, I still prefer the simplicity of this), it also does not seem to be an appropriate basis for defining “The Way”.
A Better Hope: The Gospel
Is “The Way” a System or a Person?
When referring to the “Perfect Way”, as I’ve explored above, we have generally been referring to something like a system, a set of beliefs, an ideology, or a format of ministry and church life. We have tended to believe that Jesus came to “establish a ministry”, or that he came as the “example preacher”, or that “He showed us the way to the Father”. In all these cases, “the way” denotes something apart from the actual person of Jesus Christ himself. It is something external, something that “Jesus lived, and we, too, must live”.
But nowhere does Jesus say that he came to “show us the way”. Jesus is the Way. If Jesus came to bring the “perfect system of ministry and church life” to the world, then he would have only accomplished something redundant and unnecessary. It’s recently become clear to me that the Jews already had the “perfect way”. It was called the Law. The Law was given to the “people of God” before Jesus came, and it ordered the very details of their lives down to the types of clothing they could wear, the types of food they could eat, how to handle infections and bodily fluids, and how to set up their sacrificial and ritualistic ministry. There was really no detail of life that was untouched by this system.
King David said, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” (Ps. 19:7). “The Law is holy and just and good”, says Paul (Romans 7:12) So the people of God had the Law, the exact system or method of living, which was perfect. The Way to God, the path to holiness and eternal acceptance before the Almighty King was perfect. The Way to be reconciled was perfect.
But there was a problem: The Way was perfect. And people weren’t. Because of sin, (“all men have sinned and come short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23) no man or woman or child had ever been able to walk in the way perfectly, or righteously. And no Law (or system, or format, or structure, or ideal, or commandment, or example…) could make them so. Men kept on sinning and defiling the perfect way, no matter how hard they tried to “walk in the narrow way”, “long to be faithful”, “purpose to do better in the coming days”.
The solution of God was not to start over and set up New Perfect Way to be holy. The solution of God was something entirely different:
- God knew that a perfect “Way”/format could never solve the problem of human sin (otherwise he would have created a better method/Law):“If there had been a law given which could have given life, then righteousness would have come by the law.” – Galatians 3:21
- God knew that something altogether different (“a better hope”) was necessary: “The Law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope (not a new system or format) did; by which we draw nigh to God” – Hebrews 7:19
- God Himself intervened: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was in the beginning with God… The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…And of his fulness have we all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” – John 1:1, 14, 16-17, and “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself…” – 2 Corinthians 5:19
- The demands of the Law still had to be met, but only God, in Christ, could meet them. “I have come to fulfill the Law” – (Matthew 5:17) Only one man, ever, was able to live as a perfect man in the perfect way – because this man was also “The Word who was God”. In fulfilling the requirements of the “perfect way”, The Law, Jesus Himself Became The Way.
- No man was found righteous, and only righteousness can live in the presence of God. Jesus was found righteous before the Law. So Jesus performed the “Great Reversal”: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21
Self, System or Savior
I’ve come to believe that we have three basic choices when it comes to how we go about trying to be “righteous” (or good enough, acceptable, okay, “saved”, etc.) I believe we either point to our own Self, to some kind of System, or to a Savior (and often, we use a mixture of two or three of these).
The first “righteousness option” is rampant in our culture right now. It sounds like this: “I am enough.” “I am a good person.” “This is my truth.” “You do you.”
When a person is justifying themselves on the basis of the Self, there is always some kind of score chart. Maybe it’s how many generous things they’ve done, or what good grades they’ve gotten, or how pretty they are, or how they’re the favorite in the family… (the list is endless, the way is broad).
For Paul, it sounded like this: “Circumcised the eighth day…” Philippians 3: 4-6
The second “righteousness option” is being part of a System. It’s the belief that being included in a certain group, or format, or ideology, or political party, or religion, or sports team (the list is endless, the way is broad) will make them valuable.
For the Jews, it sounded like this: “Abraham is our Father…” – John 8:39
The last “righteousness option” is something you only turn to when you’ve given up on the first two. Nobody is born ready to turn their “righteousness question” over to someone else to answer. We all start out using the Self, or the System to justify us.
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way.” – Isaiah 53:6
The last option is for people who have come to believe that they are not good. That they are flawed. That they might even have the possibility within themselves for great evil.
It is for people who are jaded. People who trusted, and were betrayed. People whom the System failed, forgot, abused.
These kind of people, people who are ready, are glad to hear about a Savior. A Way to be righteous, accepted, “okay” with God, that has nothing to do with being a good enough person, or following any sort of format or rules, but simply requires trusting Someone to love us, and rescue us.
This is The Way. He is the Way. The Rescuer. This way is very narrow. There’s only one option.
It sounds like this: “Lord Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” – Luke 23:42
Posted April 4, 2023