It is a great honor for me to welcome Jon Zens to the blog today to participate in our fourth interview. As a New Testament scholar, Jon is a tremendous resource to the body of Christ. His ministry and life example have also been a blessing to me personally. In America, Jon has literally been a voice crying out in the wilderness, so to speak. He has been a pioneer regarding calling & equipping the body of Christ to function outside the institutional religious system. Jon’s life work has truly paved the way for many today. Simply put, we stand on his shoulders. Before we jump into this interview with Jon, let me tell you a bit about him:
Jon has been married 44 years, has 3 children and six grandchildren.
Jon acquired a B.A. In Biblical Studies from Covenant College (1968); an M.Div. From Westminster Theological Seminary Philadelphia (1972); and a D.Min. From the California Graduate School of Theology (1983).
Since 1978, Jon has been the editor of the quarterly, Searching Together.
Jon is the author of numerous books, including:
- “A Church Building Every 1/2 Mile: What Makes American Christianity Tick?”
- “What’s With Paul & Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background to 1 Timothy 2”
- “No Will of My Own: How Patriarchy Smothers Female Dignity & Personhood”
- “The Pastor Has No Clothes! Moving from Clergy-Centered Church to Christ-Centered Ekklesia”
- “Christ Minimized: A Response to Rod Bell’s Love Wins”
I have found Jon to be a servant who regularly makes himself accessible to serve the body of Christ. He is a rare and treasured jewel in the kingdom to say the least. Let me encourage you to take the necessary time to read through this interview and consider what Jon has to say. Your comments and questions are welcome as well. Without further delay, let’s get into the conversation!
Jon, as an attendee of Bible college and seminary, you seemingly were on track to be a ‘Pastor’ by profession. Can you take a few minutes and summarize your journey for us as it relates to the clergy and the institutional church?
In what follows, I will focus on the early years, and then some highlights. A summary of my story can be found here.
Well, from 1965-1983 my trek was not so much black and white, but gradual in nature, with spurts here and there. In 1967, I found Alexander Hay’s New Testament Order for Church & Missionary in a used book store. This book is flawed, but at the time it certainly demonstrated that the one-man pastor model was not based in the New Testament. So from 1967 onwards I never bought into the pastor-doctrine.
Dotty and I were married in 1968. We planned to go to India to live and die there. Initially, we were going to work in an orphanage northeast of New Delhi. After I finished at Covenant College in Georgia, we moved to Philadelphia to be near Dotty’s family in New Jersey. Our intention was for me to attend Westminster Seminary one semester, and then leave for India in the summer of 1969. Our visa was turned down, so I ended up completing the course of study at Westminster. It must be underscored, then, that my study at seminary had nothing to do with pursuing the traditional pastorate.
In 1970, when Dotty became pregnant, I got a full-time job at Standard Pressed Steel in Jenkintown, PA. I worked third shift and went to school first shift. I was laid off several times, so that helped with my studies. I held several positions with that company from 1970-1975.
From 1972-75 we attended a local church that started in a home and then met in a community building. It consisted mostly of seminary students and some older families. It had a steering committee, but no pastor. It was in this setting that I was brought to question some traditional theological thinking about the relationship of old covenant to new covenant. When I shared my seed-thoughts with this group, they were well received.
At a 1974 Baptist conference in New Jersey, we met Norbert Ward. He was the editor of Baptist Reformation Review (now, Searching Together), which began in 1972. He invited us to come to Nashville, TN, and help with a new church that was meeting in his home, and with the magazine. He had already published in 1973 an article I had written on Jonathan Edwards. We resided in Nashville from 1975-1980. Because of health concerns, Norbert asked me to be the magazine editor in 1978, and I have continued in this function for 34 years.
1977, as it turned out, was a watershed year. In February I was invited to speak at a church that was very non-conventional in many ways. After four days there, my paradigm was forever changed, and I was never the same. While there, some brothers strongly encouraged me to read The Reformers & Their Stepchildren. I told them I had it, but had not read it. By June I had finished it, and then soon after I read Howard Snyder’s The Problem of Wineskins. Two immediate things happened. One, I realized that some missing pieces of the puzzle were coming together, and I had a lot to re-visit. Two, I felt strongly that the eclipse of Christ in evangelicalism needed to be challenged in writing.
What emerged were what many others called ground-breaking articles – “Is There A ‘Covenant of Grace’?” (1977), “Crucial Thoughts on ‘Law’ in the New Covenant” (1978), and “’This Is My Beloved Son, Hear Him’: A Study of the Development of Law in the History of Redemption” (1978).
Then in 1980, “’As I Have Loved You’: The Starting Point of Christian Obedience” was published. I was struck at how Christ’s cross-love permeated our life in Him. This led me to consider Christ’s life in His body on earth, the ekklesia. I began to realize how little there was in the NT about “leadership,” and how much was wrapped up in the implications of 58 “one another’s.”
The Summer 1981 magazine contained two challenging articles: “The Rise of One-Bishop Rule in the Early Church” by Judy Schlindler and my “Building Up the Body: One Man or One Another?” We received more flak in response to this issue than any other in our ten-year history.
Looking at the functioning of all believers led me next to think about “the role of women,” for it seemed that half the priesthood was at stake. In the fall of 1981 my seed-thought article, “Aspects of Female Priesthood: A Study in 1 Cor. 11-14” appeared. I got a lot of push-back just for suggesting that women could pray in gatherings of believers! The Lord’s revelation concerning the sisters matured over the years, culminating in my 2010 book, What’s With Paul & Women? Unlocking the Cultural Background of 1 Timothy 2.
Moving on to some highlights in recent years, I am so thankful that the Lord has caused His Son to shine more and more brightly in my journey. My deepening friendship and labors with Alan Levine, Milt Rodriguez and Frank Viola has been the most encouraging aspect of my growth in the past years.
Since 2000, the increasing burden of my heart for Jesus to be everything in the ekklesia, and in our walk in the world, has been sharpened. Like Paul, my heart’s desire is to know nothing but Christ as crucified in myself and in other believers.
(Click here to listen to an audio message about this)
As I reflect on what calls itself “church,” it seems to me that the reality of Christ in us is not being expressed as it should (for a number of reasons, of course). What has overwhelmed me in recent months is the undeniable fact that the narrative story unfolded in the Book of Acts reveals a spiritual vitality and growth that was unprecedented. Yet these early brothers and sisters had none of the elements we have come to deem as essential – no church buildings, no clergy, no worship services, no bulletins, no programs, and no Bible. Can you imagine the saints gathering in the meeting described in 1 Cor. 14, sharing Christ with one another in a lively way, but having no Bibles?
What would we do if we came together around the Lord, but had no Bibles? If the early saints did not have all this stuff, how do we account for the incredible manifestation of Christ in the first century? I suggest that the indwelling Christ in each person was coming to free expression in a way that we have, for the most part, lost. They lacked the things we have, but had powerful expressions of Christ; we have things they didn’t, but Christ’s expression is muted. I think we need a fresh revelation of “Christ in us, the hope of glory”.
(Click here to listen to a message about Christ in the early church)
And here’s the irony: it’s not like they had something we don’t. We have the same Christ living in us. One huge difference, it seems, is that church structures have squelched the expression of Christ in His people.
Jon, a few years ago, ‘Pagan Christianity’ by Frank Viola & George Barna was released and caused quite a controversy in the evangelical world as this book shed some light on the unbiblical roots of the institutional church system. This book also exposed the roots of the modern clergy system as well. Many Biblical scholars, who claim to carefully examine context and history in their examination of the scriptures, seem to casually disregard the context of the New Testament and of church history whenever the institutional religious system is questioned. A great example of this is Ben Witherington’s critical review of ‘Pagan Christianity.’ In my opinion, you did the body of Christ a great service when you exposed Ben Witherington’s faulty review of this book.
(Click here to read Jon Zens’ response to Ben Witherington’s review of Pagan Christianity)
In your opinion, why do you think many Western biblical scholars are so quick to dismiss the mountains of evidence that point to the pagan origins of the clergy system and much of institutional church practice?
In my studies over the years, I have seen one area in which there is virtual consensus among scholars of all stripes. Whether Roman Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Eastern Orthodox, etc., they all agree on this crucial point: the early church was simple and the post-apostolic church became more and more bureaucratic and hierarchical. I’ve cited his words often, but they capture so well the verdict of historical studies. James D.G. Dunn, one of the most prominent NT scholars, summarizes the situation like this:
Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism — when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts. We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change (Unity & Diversity in the New Testament, Westminster Press, 1977, p.351).
The big question, then, is what are the implications of these observations? Obviously, the development of the post-apostolic church morphed into something that was way out of touch with the ekklesia birthed on the Day of Pentecost. As a result, there are a boatload of vested interests that various Christian traditions must protect. One of the most pervasive practices that had to be preserved was the clergy-over-laity form of control.
The adage from Upton Sinclair certainly comes into play here: “It is difficult to get a person to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Thus, when George and Frank went for the jugular, it is no wonder church leaders went into a damage control mode. The clergy were looking for a big gun to defend the clergy turf, and Ben got the call.
Of course, many in the clergy profession have been and are re-thinking a whole lot of issues concerning what “church” and “ministry” really are about. Pagan Christianity was a book whose time had come.
Jon, you have asserted that much of the conversation and debate that occurs in evangelical circles are centered around non-essential issues that actually take our focus away from what is essential. Can you give us some examples of this?
Before we get into the heart of your question, let’s remind ourselves of a crucial NT example of making nothing into something. In the first century church, the issue of circumcision came up when the Gentiles started coming to Christ. Paul’s ultimate New Covenant verdict was, “circumcision or uncircumcision means nothing.” The believing Gentiles were not required by Christ to be circumcised. No one had to live like a Jew in order to follow Jesus. To insist on circumcision was to make Christ of no effect.
Now let’s think this through a bit more. Timothy submitted to circumcision in order to reach the Jewish people. Titus, on the other hand, was not circumcised. Why was it “yes” in one case and “no” in another? Understanding the answer to this question is vital. It was “yes” when the issue was being all things to all people in order to bring Christ to them. It was “no” when a demand was made that asserted the absolute necessity of circumcision. We learn from this that when religious people take something that is nothing in Christ and make a law out of it, we must say “no.”
It seems to me that so much discussion in Christian circles gets worked up over non-essentials, and as a result Christ is minimized. Look at the Pharisees. They made mountains out of trivia, and Christ said that by doing this they lost sight of what was important. Mark it down: whenever folks magnify the wrong things, the Lord Jesus is pushed to the periphery.
Distractions are legion, but here I will mention three. Believers have many different views on “end times/last things.” It seems to me that the topic of “the last days” usually ends up being more about events in the Middle East, and Jesus is just tagged on at the end. Fixation, obsession and curiosity about the future results in a lot of worthless prophecy books and charts, but not a passion for the glory of Christ.
People have many varieties of political views, and that’s fine. But it would seem that in American churches the subject of politics brings a lot of heat, and little light. Many church people spend more time reading the Constitution, than pursuing the Lord who dwells in them. They expend more energy trying to change the moral direction of our country, than working to rebuild the crumbling walls of the Lord’s house.
It would seem that the traditional components of “church” have become a major distraction from knowing and resting in the Lord. Just think of all the vast resources of money, time, gifts and physical labor that go into maintaining outward Christianity – it’s buildings, it’s paid staff, it’s programs and it’s bureaucratic denominational machinery. There is a plethora of Christian activity, but one has to wonder how much of it is driven just by religious momentum. A.W. Tozer noted years ago that without the ministry of the Holy Spirit, 95% of what the early church did would have ceased. He went on to say that if the Spirit were removed today, 95% of what we do in the modern church would continue unabated.
What is essential is Christ! Let’s keep our eyes fixed on him alone.
Jon, I have greatly appreciated the attention that you have given to the plight and struggle of the Anabaptists in church history. Why do you think the struggle of the Anabaptists is so relevant to those who are attempting to function outside the religious system today?
A few thoughts as to why most believers know nothing about the Anabaptists, or think they were heretics. First, the books written on church history were penned by people in the mainstream, and the Anabaptists were given very little air time and often put in a bad light. Second, it was not until 1945 that the Anabaptist works began to be translated into English. Since 1945 there has been a resurgence of interest in this previously obscure movement. As a result, many myths and misconceptions have been put to rest.
Up to the year 1500, there had always been fringe groups questioning the status quo, but for the most part they were killed and snuffed out by a visible church wedded to state powers. But by the 1500’s, you had the invention of the printing press and the blossoming of learning (Renaissance). The Catholic Church and the emerging Reformation churches were finding it more difficult to keep people under their thumbs. Thus, a combination of historical and social factors came together, resulting in the spread of the Anabaptist movement.
“Anabaptist” was a name pinned on these people by those in power. Anabaptists refused to have their children baptized by the state church. “Ana” is the Greek word for “again.” So from the vantage point of the Roman Catholics and Reformers these “rebels,” who were baptized as infants, rejected their baby-baptism and were baptized as believers “again.” A talk I gave on the Anabaptists can be heard here. It covers a lot of details we can’t get into now.
Because in good conscience they could not function in a church joined to the state, they took a huge leap and met outside of the institution. They met simply in homes and had the Lord’s Supper together. For doing this, they received heavy persecution. They were chased and killed by both the Catholics and the Reformers.
I believe the example of the Anabaptists is a powerful one for those who gather outside today’s institutions. For the most part they were peaceful people who just wished to pursue Christ according to their consciences. For them, going outside the established church structures was a life-threatening proposition. For us, we may face raised eyebrows, quizzical looks and rejection by some church leaders, but our lives are not in danger (yet). We must remember these people whose shoulders we stand upon. There is a cost to abandoning all and pursuing Christ.
The Autumn, 1978, issue of our magazine was devoted to the Anabaptists. It is still available. It has five excellent articles on the people and ideas of the Anabaptist movement. I think many of you would gain considerable ground by reading this. You can obtain it here.
Jon, what are the books that have been most influential in your life over the years?
Well, since my journey outside the religious box was accelerated in 1977, you have to allow me to share a longer list! In some cases, I will make a comment on the book. Keep in mind the Lord’s timing as He brought each of these works into my hands at key moments in my growth in Christ. These are somewhat in chronological order.
Leonard Verduin, The Reformers & Their Step-Children (Eerdmans, 1964). This book turned my world up-side down when I read it in 1977.
Howard Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins: Church Structure in a Technological Age (IVP, 1975). I read this one soon after Step-Children. It further rocked my status quo.
F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Eerdmans, 1980).
Richard Longenecker, Paul: Apostle of Liberty (Baker, 1980).
Oscar Cullmann, Christ & Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History (Westminster Press, 1964).
C.H. Dodd, Gospel & Law: The Relation of Faith & Ethics in early Christianity (Cambridge, 1951).
Bruce Larson, No Longer Strangers: An Introduction to Relational Theology (Word, 1971).
Thomas Dubay, Caring: A Biblical Theology of Community (Dimension, 1973). This is the most profound, practical & challenging book I’ve ever read.
Carl Hoch Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness for Biblical Theology (Baker, 1995).
Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting (Eerdmans, 1988).
Ray Abrams, Preachers Present Arms: The Role of the American Churches & Clergy in World Wars I & II, Round Table, 1933; Herald Press, 1968. Shows how easily the church succumbs to government propaganda and becomes a tool of the state. The chapter on “The Church Contributes to War-Time Hysteria” is chilling.
Mark Strom, Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace & Community (IVP, 2000). I don’t say this lightly: Reframing Paul is one of the most significant works since the Reformation.
Willard Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald, 1983).
Chuck Swindoll, The Grace Awakening (Word, 1990). A popular treatment worth its weight in gold.
Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (Eerdmans, 1986).
Richard Gaffin, The Centrality of the Resurrection: A Study of Paul’s Soteriology (P & R, 1987).
Donald Joy, Bonding: Relationships in the Image of God (Evangel, 1996).
Keener, Craig. The IVP Background Commentary, New Testament. (IVP).
Bruce Malina & Richard Rorhbaugh, A Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Westminster Press, 1992).
Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church (Lutterworth, 1952).
Frank Viola, From Eternity to Here (David Cook, 2009).
Jon, what do you consider to be your ‘magnum opus,’ so to speak? What is your greatest work?
I don’t really like to think in such terms. I feel that some significant revelation from Christ for His body on earth has been given to me. This revelation is that Christ is everything, and that all flows out of His death, burial, resurrection and ascension. This was given some developed expression in my 1980 article, “As I Have Loved You: The Starting Point of Christian Obedience.” (Available here)
Although I would now say some things differently, my “Desiring Unity…Finding Division: Lessons from the 19th Century Restoration Movement” still expresses some of the key burdens on my heart for the Body of Christ. (Available here)
Each of my books speak to specific needs, but The Pastor Has No Clothes: Moving from Clergy-Centered Church to Christ-Centered Ekklesia, I think, is certainly a very important work, since it gets to the heart of so much dysfunction in what calls itself “church.”
Perhaps my greatest work – whatever that may mean – is yet to come. I have several far-reaching projects in the works.
Jon, what is your overall prayer for the church of Jesus Christ today?
Jamal, my prayer for the Body of Christ would flow out of your recent blog post. Here are some excerpts from your post:
It seems that everywhere honey bees go, they bring life. They are master pollinators. There is a secret to the honey bees’ productivity, however. Bees don’t care about pollination, rather, they are simply after nectar! They have a love affair with nectar. It tastes really good to them. They are addicts. They will stop at nothing to get this nectar. Nectar is their food. In the same way as the honey bee seeks to live by nectar, we have been designed to live by ‘nectar’ as well. Our nectar is the life of the person of Jesus Christ. In the same way that nectar is found inside plants and flowers, our living ‘nectar’ is found in ourselves and in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ (Col. 1:27).
My prayer for the Lord’s people is that they will only seek the genuine nectar, Jesus Christ. There are so many well-meaning voices that focus on by-products like pollination, and even matters not even related to pollination. If bees were to hold a conference, it would be on “Beholding, Seeking, Pursuing and Finding the Nectar,” not “101 Ways We Can Increase Our Pollination.”
T. Austin Sparks crystallized the Nectar-centrality in many of his writings, and here is one of them:
God is doing a spiritual thing, not a temporal thing. I could take an hour to enlarge upon that last phrase, “not a temporal thing.” Do you see, in the sovereign activities of God, now He is confounding and confusing and breaking down all temporal representations of His heavenly kingdom? Men are trying to set up local churches after New Testament order. You have never had more confusion in local churches than you have today! They are trying to set up things, constitute things, Christian movements, Christian institutions, Christian organizations, and they are all in confusion and don’t know what to do with one another. As Billy Graham said, “The psychiatrists are chasing one another around to give some explanation of their own troubles.” Well, that may be exaggeration, but do you see what I mean? God is breathing upon every temporal representation in order to have a spiritual expression of Christ!
If Christ’s flock were not distracted, and sought only the Nectar, just think of all the fruitful, bountiful and abundant “bringing of life” that would blossom!
Thank you, Jamal, for giving me the privilege and honor of responding to these questions. May Jesus be increased on the earth through His Bride!
Jon, it truly has been an honor to have you here on the blog. Thanks again for making yourself accessible.
Thanks to all of you for taking the time to read through this interview as well. If you have any questions or comments for Jon regarding this interview, please feel free to post them here. Also, please take some time to visit Jon’s site and become familiar with the resources that are available there. (www.searchingtogether.org)