Wineskins Archive

January 23, 2014

Who Runs the Church? (June 1992)

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by Rubel Shelly
June, 1992

It is difficult to be faithful to God without incurring the wrath of people around you. What was true for Jesus was true for the apostles. It is also true for churches. So a church that is seeking spiritual renewal must prepare itself for criticism.

Jesus received this indictment one day:

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:1-7).
And this angry indictment showed up a while back in the mailbox of a church that tries to minister to hurting people:

For God’s sake, who is running the church?

We are going to wind up with all the gays and divorcees … If there is not a large turnaround from what we have now, there will not be a church as we have known it in the past.

It’s a good question: Who is running the church? The answer you give tells what you understand the church to be. It indicates what you think its mission is. And it reveals a great deal about the sort of heart you have.

Human beings have been running the church for centuries. Thus racial prejudice has been a problem in every culture, and in our churches in the United States, blacks were unwelcome until the government intervened in the ’60s. Divorced people are treated as lepers in some churches. Ex-convicts are unwelcome. So are alcoholics, people with AIDS, prostitutes, bad-smelling folks, and on and on the list could go.

If Christ is ever allowed to run the church, he will surround himself (just as he did in his earthly ministry) with the people that human-run churches exclude. People who “have it together” don’t need Jesus anyway. Only the lost sheep need a shepherd. Only the sick need a physician.

Come to think of it, we don’t need the church “as we have known it in the past.” Run by humans, excluding the very people who need the church most, rejecting people Jesus died to save – churches of this stripe ought to pass from existence. From heaven’s perspective, one has to think the sooner they become extinct, the better.

Perhaps the time has come to try a bold new experiment. It would be seen as really radical and crazy. Many would think it far-fetched and dangerous. We would have to be prepared, then, for a barrage of criticism. Here is the idea: Let’s try letting Jesus run the church for a while.

Who knows? If we seek out the same people he did, have the same attitude toward them he had, and treat them the same as he treated them, our churches might become what we have always wanted to claim we were – genuine New Testament churches.
Rubel Shelly preached for the Family of God at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, Tennessee, from


1978-2005. During that time he also taught at Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He holds a

Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, and is the author or co-author of many books, including The Jesus Community: A

Theology of Relational Faith and The Second Incarnation. He presently lives in the Greater

Detroit area where he teaches philosophy and religion at Rochester College. He is known as a community leader in Nashville

and has served with such groups as the AIDS Education Committee of the American Red Cross, a medical relief project to an

1100-bed children’s hospital in Moscow called “From Nashville With Love,” and “Seeds of


He is the author of more than 20 books, including several which have been translated

into languages such as Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Russian. He has published widely in religious

journals. He is co-editor with Mike Cope of the online magazine New Wineskins. Shelly has lectured on

Christian apologetics, ethics, and medical ethics on university campuses across America and in several foreign countries.

He has done short-term mission work in such places as Kenya, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Russia. He was

educated at Harding University (B.A.), Harding Graduate School of Religion (M.A., M. Th.), and Vanderbilt University (M.A.,

Ph.D.). He is married to the former Myra Shappley, and they are the parents of three children: Mrs. David (Michelle) Arms,

Tim, and Tom. []

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