I have a guest writer today. This couple is wonderful. They are wonderful because 1. They have forgiven me for the abuse that I helped to perpetuate while they were here at our CLB and 2) They are just wonderful people. Did I mention that they are wonderful?
Anyway, God is teaching them much about the Kingdom. I wanted you all to read what he wrote about wineskins the other day on his blog. The insights he has on this topic were truly freeing. I hope he keeps writing.
That night I had a dream in which I saw a crowd of people wearing goatskins over their clothing and all heading in one direction – so many that they began to look like a herd of animals because of the skins. It was the people of God in mass trying to get God to bless them in the manner of Jacob, by deception and by disguise rather than as sons and daughters. (I admit I was recently listening to Jason Upton talking about Jacob and Esau). The message was: God is not blind, such that he will fall for our disguises. At the same time, he is no respecter of persons and he does not withhold his hand of blessing. Indeed he even blesses those who are disguising themselves, but it’s in spite not because of the disguise.
It’s easy for me to be very critical about the way a lot of churches are run and to think, “I would set things up much better than this.” And while I generally think God agrees with me :) I don’t think He gives the issues nearly as much weight as I do. That night I also heard God speaking about the idea of the “wineskin” (I remember thinking that the people wanted to use their goatskins as wineskins). Everyone is trying so hard to make sure that they have the perfect wineskin, especially in terms of church structure. I’m starting to lean towards the idea that the Bible is not exactly clear on what the ideal church structure is and that is so for a purpose: because church structure is not what He cares about, but rather the hearts of men willingly following Him. There are a few things that he clearly does not like – like lording authority over one another and everything that constitutes religion – but he has not prescribed the ideal ‘wineskin’ that is for all time.
In fact the whole passage in Matthew 9:14-17 (below) that introduced the ‘wineskin’ to church parlance was about originally Jesus’ response to why the disciples weren’t currently fasting. He says they do not fast now, but they will fast when the bridgegroom is taken away and backs this up with 2 examples, that of putting unshrunk cloth on an old garment and that of putting new wine in an old wineskin.
Matthew 9:14-17 – Then the disciples of John came to Him saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse. Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Taking the approach that we should lend a lot of weight to the simplest, most obvious explanation of a scripture given its context, we would have to say that this talk of a wineskin is not referring to how a church should be structured or should operate but rather is a metaphor that captures why the disciples do not fast now but will fast later. The focus of the metaphor is not about containers, as cloth is not a container of anything. What is common to both metaphors is reading the situation and taking the appropriate measures given the situation: if you have an old cloth use an old patch, if you have new wine, use a new wineskin, and by extension if the bride groom is here don’t fast, but when he is gone then fast. To me the closest scripture that relates to this one is the reference to the Sons of Isaachar who discerned the times and knew what to do.
Now we can also infer from the passage that because it specifically mentions the disciples of John and the Pharisees fasting (both symbols of the old covenant, John being hailed as the greatest of that era), that Jesus may be using the wineskin metaphor to refer to the new covenant, whose wine had not yet been poured out – either by his blood at the cross or at Pentecost depending on your interpretation of what is the wine. In either case the context still seems to speak more to how our hearts respond to the new covenant than to the structure or organization of the church.
I do not deny that God often speaks from a passage beyond its original context so I won’t say that this passage cannot speak about the church, but one thing is clear in the passage: the wineskin is a response to the wine, not the wine to the wineskin. So whatever we want to apply this verse to, it cannot be changed to mean that we should prepare a new wineskin before the new wine comes. Rather, a straightforward reading of the passage indicates that we should choose the right response (wineskin or patch) to the season we are currently in.
In addition, Jesus does not mention that any time is spent designing the wineskin itself. I don’t think that wineskins were complex mechanisms. Jesus seems to indicate that they basically came in two versions: “new” and “old.” Our task is not to pick from a host of options or possible customizations: leather interior seems to be standard. Like many of his teachings, the choice He gives is binary: right or left, old or new, life or death. If he presents us with a new gift we must choose which will be our hearts response: receive it as something new, or try to fit it into the box we made yesterday; follow the lead of the Holy Spirit or repeat what we did before.
“If you build it, they will come,” is often quoted in churches though, perhaps surprisingly, these words do not from the Scriptures, but rather from Field of Dreams. The story of Noah would indicate that God can certainly work this way, so if you hear God whispering theses words, by all means get to the cornfield and start working. But the problem is often the one thing common to many churches throughout Christendom, from house churches to mega churches to virtual churches, is the idea that if they just can get the wineskin right they will get the new wine. Half these churches’ time is spent painstakingly perfecting their wineskin and the other half pondering how the other wineskins out there are getting old.
I am starting to believe that God cares a lot less than we do about whether a church has 50,000 people and a pastor with a botox smile on the cover of his new bestseller or a handful of homeschooling ex-Mennonites in a poorly decorated ranch house. While both of these thoughts make me cringe, He seems to have much more grace than I do and is pouring out wine without measure to whoever will come to Him thirsty. There are things that churches do that probably make Him go crazy. Particularly grieving must be when churches misrepresent His heart towards His people. But, for future church planters, I don’t think the answer is to focus on designing a better wineskin. I think it’s just to get better at wine tasting.