Thursday, September 30, 2004

The soul of the restoration movement

If restorationist Christians should not have formed their own denominations in the attempt to fight denominationalism, then what is the relevance of the restoration movement? Would Campbell and others have started the movement if they had the view that Christians were not to separate from other Christians over differences of opinion? These are fair questions and deserve answers, but first we need to decide if we are determining the relevance of the present state of the restoration movement or of the original principles that first shaped it.

Since the first century church strayed from the simplicity of early church practices within its first century of existence, it should not surprise us that the restoration movement of the early 1800s, based on a plea for unity among all believers, has devolved into a field of factions whose favorite pastime is debating. It doesn't take long for a movement to lose its soul. All it takes is one generation to mimic the forms of its predecessors without understanding the meaning behind those forms. Very soon, like a series of photocopies, the next generation comes along, twice removed from the original concepts. Each generation lacks a little more of the clarity of thinking that came with the first generation. There are subtle signs of the devolution of this non-sectarian movement back toward sectarianism as early as 1826.

My greatest mistake in understanding the restoration movement was in thinking it was unlike all other social and religious movements in history. This time was different, I thought. I understood this to be a progressive movement, not the usual regressive one. I believed that the concepts advanced in the first generation were refined and hammered out on the anvil of the scriptures to arrive at greater truth for subsequent generations. In fact, it appears that humans stepped in to do what we usually do: with good intentions, we messed up a good thing.

It shouldn't be surprising that this happened when we look at the revivalism of the Jewish nation in the days of the judges. They were brought back to God in fits and starts, usually in a burst of energy followed by years of subsequent decline. That's not to say that the Lord's church has declined in the last 175 years or so since the restoration movement got underway. No, the Lord's church has survived and prospered as it always has, just like the faithful of Israel prospered in each of its dark periods. The Lord's church has survived because it is not a visible organization or association of organizations, but a spiritual body of believers who have been washed by the blood of the lamb, scattered over the face of the earth.

Remember, the Lord adds to the church, we don't, when someone obeys the gospel. Just as it is not necessary to understand all the blessings of American citizenship prior to becoming a citizen, there is nothing in the scriptures stating that it is necessary for an immersed believer to understand at the time of his entry into citizenship in Jesus' kingdom that his sins were being washed away. That means that the Lord has added a lot of people to his flock who have been baptized into Christ and have risen with him just as we have, but who are getting fed in denominational pastures.

The question we face, then, is whether the restoration plea of unity among all believers should be realized by replacing mainstream denominationalism with our own brand of denominationalism, or if it should be used to change, one by one, the hearts and minds of Christians who mistakenly rally around a denominational banner rather than the banner of Jesus Christ himself. The fruit of the first method is more division, not less of it. The second method was the one adopted in the early restoration movement, but its fruits, when put into practice once again, may not be fully visible in our lifetime. We have to be patient to see these spiritual fruits, because they are not visible by counting organizational membership.

The Roman apostasy made the mistake of thinking the cause of Christ was a top-down movement. They thought the heavy lifting of God's will was done by the brass at the top, rather than the foot soldier on the ground. We can't make that same mistake. The cause of Christ was a bottom-up movement from day one on Pentecost. Individuals took the cause and marched to spread the good news.

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, he told her that there would come a time when people would not worship in this place or in that place, but in spirit and in truth.

    John 4:23-24 - Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

That, of course, does not mean that true worshippers won't unite together to encourage each other. They will do so and should do so, even if they have imperfect knowledge of how to do so. But true unity is when God's people are united together, not by written or unwritten agreements of association, or this or that pattern of church practice, but to further the cause of faith in our one true Pattern. That is the soul of the restoration movement and of the primitive gospel, and it is not until that is achieved in the hearts of Christians everywhere that we will see a true restoration of a unified New Testament church. Form, as is often said, follows function.

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Thursday, September 23, 2004

Brother, this is hard

As I think through the implications of the truth that all who are in Christ Jesus have a divine responsibility to be of one mind and to be patient and longsuffering with each other, I am struck by the difficulty of putting it into practice. I recently browsed the websites of various denominations which shares the restoration movement roots of Churches of Christ. They, as well as we, preach the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, including immersion. But when I read their Constitution, Bylaws, and Policies, they are as foreign and cumbersome to my non-institutional mind as a "cowbell in church," as Alexander Campbell might say.

This is where the rubber meets the road in the question of unity. It tests the mettle of every true believer in Jesus' prayer for unity to see a practice that you don't believe is what the new covenant scriptures intended, yet accept that many of those who practice it are sincere members of Christ's body as well as I. Brother, this is hard.

But the difficulty of the task doesn't preclude us from taking it up if we are to take our command seriously to love our brethren and avoid factions. Those of us who have argued the necessity for functional divisions among God's people are faced with some blunt testimony from Jesus Christ himself and from his apostles:

    John 17:9-11 - "I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. 10 And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are?"

Jesus' prayer is for the unity of all believers in Him. He states here that all those who belong to Christ belong to the Father, and we have to recognize the same fact, as hard as it may be. He goes on:

    John 17:20-23 - "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

Here he gives his definition of what he meant when he said "that they also may be one in Us," when he says "that the world may believe that You sent Me." That is the meaning of "being one in Him;" being true believers in the good news that the Father sent Him. We cannot and will not see eye to eye on practical matters throughout the course of our Christian walk. But we are commanded, once we are brothers, to remain seeing eye to eye on these important facts:

    1 Corinthians 15:1-8 - Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you--unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.

To fail to stand firm in this gospel "by which you are saved" is to remain in our sins:

    1 Corinthians 15:14-17 - And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up--if in fact the dead do not rise. 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!

We can't divide out of practical necessity when the apostle teaches us so clearly to remain unified and of one mind on this highest common denominator of our faith. That is not to suggest that the gospel is all we ever need to worry about, but that it is the only basis of Christian love, fellowship, and association. From there we move forward to edify one another and share experiences and understandings of the inspired Word. But in all these matters of understanding, we must be forbearing of brethren, erring or not, because with the mercy we have shown, we ourselves will be judged:

    James 2:12-13 - So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Peace, longsuffering, and kindness are fruits of the Spirit, implying that in their absence, the fruits of the Spirit are lacking:

    Galatians 5:22 - But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

Paul knew this would be difficult. In his words to the Ephesian congregation, he emphasizes humility, gentleness, and the need to bear with each other in love. It takes a positive effort on our part to endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

    Ephesians 4:1-3 - I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, 2 with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, 3 endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

It is stunning to read the numerous other admonitions in scripture to be longsuffering with our brethren. In his letter to Colosse, Paul writes that being longsuffering is walking worthy of the Lord:

    Colossians 1:9-14 - For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; 10 that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13 He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, 14 in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.

We are even to "give thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light." This points out that we are all in this together. We should not be thanking God that we "are not like the institutionalists" but that God has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance.

In the same letter, Paul writes that there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free. He might well have added "one-cup or two cup, paid preacher or mutual edification" if he were among us today. He exhorts us to be merciful, kind, humble, forgiving of each other "even as Christ forgave you." But above all, he says, put on love, which is the perfect bond to glue us together as Christians:

    Colossians 3:9-12 - Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, 10 and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, 11 where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. 12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.

That love is the bond of brotherhood should be evident. That we don't consider our brothers to be worthy of our prayers, fellowship, and edification is evidence that love is lacking. That is a hard pill to swallow, and it may take some time to get it down. But get it down we must, if we are to look inward to figure out how to put the principles of Christian unity into practice. And brothers, it's always hardest to look inward.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Going off the deep end

The many pathways of human thinking provide each of us with an infinite array of choices for which trailhead to follow next. I don't think anyone takes a particular fork in the road of thought with the knowledge that it is a path of error. Correct and erroneous thinking alike are chosen because they are not perceived to be errors. Some may think that I've chose an erroneous road because I accept all who are immersed into Christ as brothers, yet I am convinced of the fundamental truth at the trailhead, even as I'm uncertain of what conclusions it might draw me toward.

I'm refreshed by that uncertainty, not afraid of it, as I was at first. It tells me that I don't have a preconceived notion that I'm trying to arrive at. That is the way it was in the early days of both the gospel and the restoration movement of the 19th century, and it should be no different now. The first assembly of believers in Jerusalem had no preconceived notion of what truths and blessings they might discover in Christ when they first believed.

When they strayed from the simplicity of faith in Christ, the apostles always brought them back to the beginning - not to deductions about correct methods found in the apostolic letters, which were not penned for decades after the first gospel sermon, but to the beginning of each and every Christian's original faith in, and obedience to the gospel. Their letters were for training, not making, citizens. My fear is that we are expecting sinners to assent to our understanding of the training manual before we ever allow them to become trainees, not realizing that we ourselves are merely fellow trainees.

The trailhead I start at is primitive Christianity. I know that some will think, due to where their paths of thought have taken them, that because we may currently stand in different places on a few conclusions, that I have necessarily taken the path of error - that I have gone off the deep end. I think that is judging ourselves by a relative standard, rather than the absolute standard, Jesus Christ. Some will assume, without any consideration, that my faith has been shaken in the church that Jesus died for or in the ancient message that we've all labored so hard to understand and to put into practice. That couldn't be further from the case.

It's true my faith is no longer in a particular mode or method of worship or edification, but in Jesus Christ himself. It always has been, in its most basic sense. But I've realized, and I hope my brothers everywhere do as well, that the methods found in the new testament "patterns" were means to an end, not the end itself.

Achieving the "pattern" of the Lord's supper is not the primary goal of our practice, but is only the means to achieve our goal of joint communion with Christ and with each other. I owe a debt to one brother who pointed out that the exhortation given at the Lord's supper was not a time to be justifying a particular pattern for the supper, but a time to be implementing it. Too many "table talks," including my own, have been legal rationale for the Lord's supper rather than meaningful reminders of His death until he comes. This is like a lawyer repeatedly justifying before the court his authority to practice there without ever practicing there. He is tilting at windmills.

It is possible for a pattern deduced from scripture to be expounded and debated laboriously, while the true pattern, Jesus himself, gets relatively minor attention. In some congregations, I suspect that some have heard more sermons on the system of mutual edification than sermons that actually do edify. This is not an indictment of the system, but of the honor we give to the system, elevating it above the goal that the system attempts to reach. Have we ever considered that we have an obligation to mutually edify all of our brethren everywhere, and not force upon them our system for doing so?

Are we in the churches of Christ with a non-institutional or mutual edification designation correct in many things? Of course I believe that. But I must confess that I have made the mistake of thinking that "right" makes "fight" - that we ought to pursue to the point of division every issue in which we are confident of the correctness of our intellectual position. But fighting for the truth is not the same as fighting for the Truth, if you know what I mean. It is possible to be factually correct, but wrong in our application of that fact. The partisan mindset has turned the church into an exclusive debating society for over a century, where pulpits, newsletters, and colleges are used for the purpose of distilling only the true believers - not in our common faith, but in a particular understanding, deduction, or practice. It should be no surprise, then, that those who are not interested in debating, but in simply following Christ to the best of their imperfect present knowledge, don't exactly feel our brotherly love.

My own mistake, dating prior to my first day in the Lord, was in thinking that being correct and agreed about a practice or a pattern places one brother in fellowship with another. I honestly believed that agreement was unity and unity was agreement. I thank God that it is not, because if that were the criteria for either unity or fellowship, not one single congregation could exist in unity. Not a single congregation is or can be either fully correct or fully in agreement. Yet we have Jesus' prayer and Paul's command to remain fully unified and to speak the same thing, a command that is impossible to carry out on the basis of agreement upon doctrinal deductions.

When I consider whether my own conclusions thus far mean that I've gone off the deep end, I look back on all of the new testament patterns that I've deduced. I still see most of them as I always have. I don't think we have to give up imitating the forms and functions of ancient assemblies of believers. But such imitation does not constitute the deep truths of God, nor does it bring about our salvation. Our salvation can only be obtained by holding up the banner of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and our unity can only be preserved by rallying around that banner, not our systems and patterns. In that sense, it may be true that I've gone off the deep end. But if this is the deep end of the pool, I don't want to wade in the shallow end anymore. There are deeper waters in our shared faith, and believe me, they are much more thirst quenching.

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Monday, September 20, 2004

A nonsectarian sect?

With any plea for unity, there is always the danger that those who don't understand the Biblical basis for unity will set out to form a non-sectarian sect - or think that others are trying to do so. There is as much legitimacy in a non-sectarian sect as in a non-divisive division. The whole idea is profoundly self-contradictory.

But historically, this is what has happened when people have risen to the realization that Christian partisanship is wrong, but have not looked within themselves to see the root of the problem. It is much easier to look at everyone else as the problem and separate to form a party around a central theme, than it is to work together with those who don't agree with us. Separating from brethren is the road most traveled, and the one guaranteed to end in political camps among brothers. It is much more difficult, and a road largely untraveled, to actually have brotherly interaction with saints who understand the new testament "pattern" of assembly differently than we do.

We in the restoration movement have largely come to accept sectarianism as a necessary evil. "You have to draw the line somewhere" is what I hear most often. Well, maybe we don't. Drawing lines in the sand only tells us where we stand in relation to our brother, not to God, and therein is the problem. Doing so only puts us to the right or left of some other fallible person.

Drawing a line in the sand is only a practical response to what we perceive to be necessary, not a principled response based on the Word. We have come to the scriptures with a pre-formed view that we can't associate with certain people based on their misunderstanding of scripture. The logic goes thus: Erasing the line in the sand would cause us to have to admit them as brothers; therefore I must keep my line in the sand. But no one can find me any scripture where we are told to deny someone the right hand of fellowship who has been obedient to the gospel, remains in the shared faith of Jesus Christ, and refrains from moral depravity and schism. It can't be done.

I don't have infallible answers about how each matter of Christian association should be resolved. They are not easy questions to answer. I don't necessarily want to go down that road, either--but I must because I see the fundamental truth at the trailhead.

Whatever answers we arrive at, we ought to be praying hard for our patient and longsuffering God to be forbearing of any potential misunderstandings. We should also extend the same forbearing attitude toward our brothers who, with the intellect and measure of faith God has granted them, have arrived at a different understanding of things. Let's put things in perspective, and be less concerned with which side of a human-derived line we're on, and more concerned with the Rock upon which we all are wanting to stand.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

My creed...and mine alone

I think the restoration movement slogan "no creed but the New Testament" may need further discussion of the word "creed."

    Creed: n. - A formal statement of religious belief; a confession of faith; a system of belief, principles, or opinions.
    [As defined by]

If that is all that is meant by the term "creed," then we all, as individuals at least, have a creed to the extent that we hold a set of opinions and religious beliefs which we personally deem to be correct. Even restoration movement churches, while decrying the sectarian tendencies of congregational creeds, generally have them (albeit informal and unwritten). Communities of these believers have agreed to a certain body of "orthodox" opinions on various subjects, ranging from instrumental music to church support for institutions. Many of these opinions about proper congregational practices I hold as well.

In the discussion of creeds, it is not the fact that one has a set of beliefs and deductions about God's Word - conservative, liberal, or otherwise - that is the problem. The problem lies in the establishment of those beliefs to form boundaries of association (either on an inter- or intra-congregational basis) with other believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. Consider the definition of "creed" as used in religious literature today:

    Creeds - Authoritative summaries of the principal articles of faith of various churches or bodies of believers. Since doctrines are subject to elaboration and interpretation that cause differences of opinion detailed creeds become necessary to emphasize the differences between the tenets of schismatic branches. They also serve as formulations of belief when liturgical usage, as in the administration of baptism, requires a profession of faith.
    [As defined by]

In popular usage, creeds have become authoritative and synonymous with "tests of fellowship." But the bizarre historical legacy of the restoration movement in the 20th century is that we put away written creeds but formulated new tests of fellowship. Shouldn't one have been tossed with the other?

Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians in Rome that it was possible for two believers to differ on what was to them a very important doctrinal issue of the time, yet still walk as unified brothers:

    Romans 14:22-23 - So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. NIV

The creeds of these believers were to be their own private creed. Moving beyond the most basic principle of Christianity, that all who are obedient to the gospel call are citizens of the kingdom, the real question is "Which citizens do we associate with?" The answer may be shocking to some of us, but it is nonetheless axiomatic to Jesus' prayer and Paul's pleas for unity: All of them. Even if they are mistaken on many things that seem clear to us. That is why Paul so repeatedly urges Christians to be patient and longsuffering with our brothers. To do otherwise is to ask Jesus to be patient with us for our misunderstandings while we demand a higher standard of our brother.

(For clarity, it behooves me to make note of the exceptions. Paul clearly teaches us to avoid those who move away from the truth of the gospel - in other words, those who deny the saving power of the good news and obedience to it. He also teaches us to avoid associating with brothers who continue in moral depravity, and those who cause division in the Lord's body.)

The pure gospel message, as proclaimed in full on Pentecost and obeyed by thousands that day, requires all saved individuals to work together and share in the common life and cause that is Christ Jesus. To deny a brother fellowship is to deny him brothership, something we have neither right nor power to grant or withhold. That is above our pay grade. When a list of opinions, whether written or unwritten, formal or informal, is used to deny a person his rightful place as a brother and fellow traveler in the Way, it is a creed in the worst sense of the word, and has become useful only for creating sects out of believers.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Freedom from bondage

It is encouraging to read restoration movement literature from the 19th century denouncing slavery. This was such a divisive period in our nation's history, and I am happy to know that those involved in the early effort to restore the principles of the new testament church were on the right side of history and humanity. I am also painfully aware that many churches pointed to the new testament to justify slavery. After all, the theory went, Paul sent a slave back to his master:

    Philemon 12-14 - I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. (NKJV)

As it turns out, it is far more likely that Onesiumus was a bondservant, and that Paul was sending him, a debtor to his physical brother Philemon, back to his master. The KJV uses the word "servant" rather than "slave," and this seems more consistent with the context that Onesimus was Philemon's biological brother:

    Philemon 15-16 - For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? (KJV)

In any case, we would look ill upon any person contractually owning another human being's freedom. But Paul instructed Timothy that Christian bondservants should continue to submit to their believing masters, because they are brothers:

    1 Timothy 6:2 - Those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers. Instead, they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them. These are the things you are to teach and urge on them.

What is striking about Paul is that he did not write to Philemon commanding him, as a matter of Christian law, to free his bondservant Onesimus. Instead, he requested this of him as a personal favor and as a tribute to his love for his brother in the flesh and in Christ. He did not write for bondservants to demand their freedom from Christian masters, who ought to have known better than to put another human being into bondage, contractual or not. Instead, he instructed them to submit to their brothers out of love. This speaks volumes about the role of Christian brotherhood in bonding together a diverse people.

Did Paul soften Jesus' doctrine to "love your neighbor as yourself?" No. Was he cheapening the message by currying political favor in a society that thought nothing of putting other human beings into bondage? Absolutely not. In fact, he was illustrating in the extreme Jesus' command by not twisting it to read "insure that your masters love you and free you." Jesus' command was to be internalized in the individual: "love your masters."

Are we, then, like lawyers, to use the apostle's letters as legal documents, establishing for all in our "brotherhood" what are the lawful and unlawful methods of edifying each other? Or are we to use them as exhortations to think and act in accordance with the principle of love for God, his Son, and our brethren? Paul's lack of "pulling rank" and issuing a command is a telling sign of how we are to be longsuffering and patient with our brethren who may be in error on points of doctrine or practice.

Churches in the South often divided over the issue of slavery, forming communities of like-minded believers based on where groups came down on that issue. But never does Paul demand or suggest that. You can't persuade a brother to give up his slaves in the spirit of Christian love if you dissociate with him. Slavery was and is contrary to Christ's law of love for all mankind. To enslave a fellow human being is to act contrary to Jesus' summation of the law in the command to "love your neighbor as yourself." Our "golden rule," which is based on this command, is clearly violated in the act of enslaving a person, whether that slavery is the result of financial default or not.

If Paul could be patient with a brother who held a bondservant, something I cannot imagine doing, I can be patient with a brother who, in good conscience, doesn't see eye to eye with me on matters of church practice. Like Onesimus, we have been freed from bondage, but for us, it is the bondage of the written code:

    Galatians 5:1 - It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

The written code has been abolished, as surely as the institution of slavery:

    Romans 2:29 - No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.

    Romans 7:6 - But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

It is replaced by serving God in a new way. This new way is not summed up by formatting each of our assemblies in the exact pattern of the early church. That may be wise, but it is neither the sum and substance of the gospel nor of Christian fellowship and association. There is no more a fixed, legal pattern for our assemblies than there is a legislative code to establish that pattern. That, of course, doesn't mean we are antinomian, or without law or instruction on the Christian assembly. But it does mean we can't establish a fixed pattern for our assembly by which we can measure the faithfulness of ourselves or other believers.

Those living under the Law of Moses were required to conform with a detailed legislative code, but the law of Christ is not like that. The Law was a tutor to bring us to Christ, and He didn't bring along another tutor. Our law is written in our hearts, addressed to our reason, to our humanity, and to our love for God and our fellow man. The new testament scriptures are not meant to be read with the intent of determining what God has legislated. Instead, we are to educate our consciences with them, forbearing one another in love in matters where we disagree, and working together for the common goal of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. That is true freedom from the bondage of the written code and absolute compliance with our only true pattern, Jesus Christ himself.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

The highest common denominator

Have you ever felt that someone was trying to cheapen or soft-pedal the gospel to curry favor or gain crowds at their church? I have. In fact, much of my life I have viewed others' religious practices with a hyper-critical eye, secure in the knowledge that they were doing things out of insincere motives and greed. They were, in my view, making the gospel too "easy" and bringing our faith down to its lowest common denominator.

Fortunately, I realize now that another's motives are not mine to judge. Even more liberating is the simple realization that the gospel is not the lowest common denominator of our faith, but the absolute highest. All who are obedient to it are to be received as brothers regardless of differing understandings about church practices that currently divide the Lord's people.

There is a tendency for us to think that the gospel plus a correct understanding of the apostles' doctrines are what put us into fellowship with each other--that being right or agreed (not necessarily in that order) on a list of issues is what makes us brothers. If that is the case, we are not truly in fellowship at all, because we all hold differing opinions on things both on and off that list. In fact, we probably don't all agree about what should be on that list in the first place. Has anyone ever suggested chucking the list altogether?

"Well, we all agree on the major issues" you say. Major issues? Who is the arbiter of what is a major or a minor issue? Was the issue of eating meat in Romans 14 of equal importance to all the brethren? Of course not! To one it was a major issue, to the other, a minor one. That's why Paul penned the chapter in the first place! One may be right or both may be wrong, but no difference of opinion is cause to divide from our brethren.

I suggest that a person can be right on every doctrinal interpretation and still be lost if his heart is not where it should be. Likewise, it is possible for a man, in accordance with his intellect, to incorrectly understand every one of the apostolic letters and still be saved by his obedience to the saving good news of Jesus Christ. Such a person is not a step-brother, but a fellow Christian whom we are not to "set at naught" by failing to receive as a brother. Receive him, Paul argues, and not for the sake of doubtful debates.

Alexander Campbell wrote in 1826: "I have no idea of adding to the catalogue of new sects. I labor to see sectarianism abolished and all Christians of every name united upon the one foundation upon which the apostolic church was founded." Amen, brother. And what is that one foundation? Is it a particular church practice, or is it something else?

Remember, the gospel was fully preached on the day of Pentecost in Acts Chapter 2. From that day forward, nothing was added to it. It was that gospel message that took the keys of the kingdom and opened up the gates for new citizens to be let in by the thousands. It was on that foundation that Jesus' church was built. The first apostolic letters were not written for many years after that first sermon. While God continued to reveal additional knowledge about the practices of the church, these instructions were for the bettering of the saints, not the making of them. Paul wrote that "from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ." We can be certain that the same message Peter preached on Pentecost is what Paul "fully preached" from Jerusalem to Illyricum; that Jesus was God in the flesh, died for our sins, and rose again to sit at the right hand of God.

Obedience to this good news in the waters of immersion is what all believers have in common. That is our shared faith. Obedience to the gospel is not the lowest common denominator of all Christians - it is the highest. There is nothing more important to our salvation than that we are in Christ. All other issues on which brethren disagree may have valid forums for discussion, but should never be used to withhold the right hand of fellowship from one brother to another.

As we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, we will arrive at various understandings throughout our lives. That is how God designed the human mind. The saints throughout the world can no more arrive at a correct understandings on doctrinal matters at the same time than they can all shout "amen" at the precisely the same moment. There is only one issue which can rightfully be maintained on any list as a test of fellowship, and it is the only one to which all must say "amen" in our brotherhood; and that's the pure and simple gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the highest common denominator of the faith we share.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Doctrinal partisanship

This election season reminds me of how partisan I am by nature. I want my side to win because I truly believe my side stands for much that is right about America. Does it always do what is right in every case? No. But I put aside minor, and even some major differences, and rally behind my party because I perceive that the good that can be done if my party is in power will outweigh the bad they will do that I may disagree with. Others may disagree. That does not make them un-American. But at election time, I make no apology for wanting my party to win power.

The Lord's church is not to be about acquisition of power or influence over the brethren, and therefore is not to be political in nature. It follows, then, that it should never be partisan. Partisanship divides and is only useful for winning elections. It is not useful for anything else. Any effort to divide the Lord's people over a particular doctrinal bent upon which honest brothers can disagree has no place among the Lord's people. We may differ without being divided.

Basis of fellowship

Partisanship, the 20th century legacy of the 19th century restoration movement, has been furthered by a misunderstanding of the basis of Christian fellowship. While the denominational world has relished their creeds, insisting that uniformity of opinion on "these essential things" would bring about unity, we have fallen into the same trap using our own unwritten criteria as "tests of fellowship."

But the foundation upon which Christian fellowship and unity are built is not uniformity of opinion but uniformity of obedience to the gospel of Christ. All who are obedient to the gospel call are in the fellowship of the saints, not just those with whom we have come to associate over time. 1 Corinthians 11:13 says that "by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free--and have all been made to drink into one Spirit."

Fellowship is our joint participation with each other in the blood of Christ. We don't choose to be in fellowship with each other. Fellowship is a state to which we are admitted by the Lord when we are brought into the likeness of his death. If we have been redeemed, we are put into fellowship with each other through Christ whether we like it or not. Our responsibility is to maintain that fellowship by walking in the light (1 John 1:7), defined by the apostle John as loving our brethren: "Whoever loves his brother lives in the light..." (1 John 2:10). We can't love our brother if we don't acknowledge that he is one.

Koinonia is the Greek word that has been generally translated "fellowship" in the New Testament scriptures. It is defined by the KJV New Testament Lexicon as:

fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse
- the share which one has in anything, participation
- intercourse, fellowship, intimacy

True, we are a community of believers. We share in common many similar doctrinal opinions, many of which I believe are correct. But I hope none of us would dare claim to be the sole faithful community of believers. Our doctrinal deductions are not even remotely a scriptural basis for unity or fellowship any more than our political affiliation. The fact that restoration movement churches have made them so is what has caused the sad state of division we see today, with this or that group forming partisan lines in the sand around their particular hobbies.

But we have not so learned in Christ. Doctrines and opinions, however correct, were never what brought us into our fellowship with Christ. As such, they cannot be the basis for denying some from that fellowship.

Paul in Romans 12:16 says "Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion." Our own opinions and deductions are just that--our own. They may be utterly right, but they are not the standard by which we measure our brethren.

Romans 14:1 tells the Christians to "Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things." Paul goes on to write "let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him." Who God has received, we are to receive as well, and not for the sake of holding debates. We are to receive each other as equal heirs in the work of Christ on the cross, because God has cleansed us and them alike. What God has cleansed in the waters of baptism, we should not call common or unclean. All who have been washed, whether we think they are practicing their faith correctly or not, must be accepted as full brothers, not distant relatives.

Our English word "fellowship" is composed of two root words. One (fellow) means "a comrade or associate; a person of equal rank, position, or background; a peer." The other (-ship) is a suffix that means "quality, state, or condition." Put them together and you have the real meaning for our word "fellowship:" The quality, state, or condition of being a comrade, associate, peer, or person of equal rank, position, or background.

Fellowship means brothership. In baptism we are put into a state of brothership with all others who are in Christ, and to deny that brothership over a doctrinal statement is to make a creed out of our beliefs, even if they are correct. Galatians 3:26-28 bears this out: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

All who have been immersed into Christ are comrades in the cause of the gospel and equal participants in the grace of God. To deny this is to place a condition of fellowship on our brethren that God never placed upon us. We have fellowship with God only because of the propitiation of His Son, which brings us into that fellowship. He did not demand that we learn at once the mind of God, nor all the fine points of the apostle's doctrine before we were accepted into His fellowship. Neither can we raise an artificial standard of intellectual achievement to which all must submit before they can be accepted into our fellowship. (See Alexander Campbell's "Parable of the Iron Bedstead.")

We cannot force upon others our own intellectual accomplishment, because our intellects belong to us and to us alone. Just as we ourselves arrive at a conclusion and cannot accept it until it is our own, we cannot demand that others suddenly arrive at the same place we are at the same moment. We are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we are all growing, then we are all at different places in our understandings on various issues. And yes, that includes our practice of "mutual edification," which I continue to believe holds much merit and scriptural precedent.

A simple fact, a simple cause

Sometimes there arrives in our consciousness a simple fact so compelling that it causes us to reassess the fundamental truths that motivate us. The idea of God-endowed liberty was one of the simple facts that defined 18th century politics. This simple idea gave birth to our nation. The life-changing axiom that all are in the fellowship of the saints who have been added into it by the Lord is one that is historically just as earth-shaking to the Lord's people. This simple idea gave birth to a spiritual kingdom with no sectarian boundaries in the 1st century, and it will do the same in the 21st. Whether we claim that heritage of unity or not is our prerogative.

In political partisanship, we compromise some issues when we throw in our lot with a particular candidate. We have to, because no candidate agrees with us on every single issue. But when we form tests of fellowship over matters of intellectual understanding we are compromising the cause of Christ by creating factions. We are diverting precious intellectual resources from our primary mission of spreading the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The armies of the Lord are much bigger than we ever imagined. So are the mission fields. Let's go out and recruit souls into Christ and stop trying to recruit them into doctrinal camps whose boundaries change with maturity.

~Dedicated to the poor soul who had to categorize churches in Where the Saints Meet.