Saturday, October 30, 2004

More on koinonia vs. fellowship

It seems clear to me that koinonia signifies a much closer, more intimate meaning than our modern English word fellowship. As such, we can fellowship with someone (in popular usage, to associate with or jointly participate in an activity with them) without having koinonia, or close, intimate communion. In this way, Jesus could attend weddings and even gatherings of sinners where he was not having "koinonia" with them, but he was, indeed, jointly participating in their activities.

Where does this realization lead? Well, I think it leads us to the fact that we can have fellowship (association and joint participation in activities) without koinonia (intimate communion), but we can't have koinonia while denying fellowship. To deny fellowship from a brother is to reject koinonia and divide from him, the very thing Paul preaches against so frequently.

Friday, October 29, 2004

On fellowship vs. koinonia

This post comes directly from Chapter 11 of Carl Ketcherside's The Twisted Scriptures, which completely changed the way I looked at the New Testament scriptures and my own faith. I started reading the book determined that he was wrong and that I was going to prove to myself why. Instead, when I honestly re-examined the scriptures, I found amazingly simple truths that should have hit me over the head years ago. Maybe they'll hit you over the head, too! If not, drop me a line, I'd love to chat about it.


    It has been said more than once in this volume that "fellowship" is the English term most often used as a rendering for the Greek koinonia. It is not the equivalent of koinonia, for equivalent means "equal in value or power," and there is no single English word capable of capturing the full meaning of koinonia. The translators who gave us The New English Bible knew this and used the expression "sharing in the common life." My own investigation leads me to endorse this as the best rendering known to me.

    Fellowship is composed of the two words "fellow" and "ship." Fellow is from the Anglo-Saxon felagi, comrade or partner. It has been surmised that it may have originally signified those who bound themselves together by a blood-covenant. If this is so, the word signified more than a casual partnership in land or business, but there is no real evidence to sustain this. "Ship" is a suffix indicating state or condition. Sonship is a state in which we share as sons, companionship is a state in which we share as companions. Fellowship is a state in which we share as fellows, that is, as associates or peers.

    The word "fellow" shows it is a relation of persons to each other, and not of persons to ideas or things. No one ever asks, "Do you companionship automobiles"? Nor does one ever ask, "Do you partnership the common market theory"? But that is no more ridiculous than to ask, "Do you fellowship instrumental music in corporate worship?" or "Do you fellowship premillennialism"? It would be just as absurd to ask, "Do you partnership your associate in the service station"? Yet we constantly hear those who are ignorant of the significance of fellowship asking, "Do you fellowship this individual or that?" You may be in partnership with your associate, and in the fellowship with your brethren, but we need to keep our language straight unless we wish to demonstrate that our ideas are warped.

    In the context of the new covenant, fellowship is the state or condition of sharing in the life of Jesus Christ into which we are called by God (1 Corinthians 1:9). God issued the call through the gospel (2 Thess. 2:14), a distinct proclamation of seven historical facts designed to establish the most sublime truth of all ages, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The response to this call is belief of the fact and submission to the lordship of Jesus in one act, immersion in water under His authority or name. Every person in the universe who believes with all of his heart that Jesus is the Messiah and God's Son, and who is immersed in validation of that faith is in the fellowship. He is in it by an act of God. He is received of the Lord to the glory of God (Romans 15:7).

    We are called as individuals, we respond as individuals, and we are received as individuals. But we are not simply called out of the world, we are also called together in Christ. We share in the common life of the Father and Son, which is eternal life, but because we do we also share with all others who share that life (1 John 1:3). We are not joined to Jesus because we are joined to others, but we are joined to others because we are joined to Jesus. Our relationship on the horizontal plane does not create our relationship on the vertical plane, but our relationship on the vertical plane creates our relationship on the horizontal.

    This means that what one does or thinks on the horizontal plane need not affect the vertical relationship of another at all unless he personally condones or endorses it. No one is held responsible for anything which he disavows. Jesus plainly taught that individuals could be in a congregation which was dead and whose works were not perfect before God, and still walk with him in white because they were worthy (Revelation 3:1-4). Indeed, He also taught that persons could be in a congregation where a woman taught and seduced his servants to commit fornication, but if they refused her doctrine and practice and kept His word to the end, they would be blessed.

    Obviously there will be some things occur among brethren in which one cannot participate because of conscience. One must never violate his personal conviction by sharing in any view or act which appears to him to be contrary to the will of God. But such differences will not affect the fellowship which results from our relationship to Jesus unless one or the other denies the Son of God or renounces His rule. Our fellowship with God is not conditioned upon seeing everything alike or upon doing everything in the same fashion but upon receiving Jesus as the Messiah and His Son. So long as we do not deliberately repudiate this conviction by word or deed the fellowship remains intact.

    Fortunately we have a good example of this in the letter Paul addressed to the Romans. There were those who could freely eat meat and others whose consciences would not allow them to do so. Certainly the latter could not jointly participate with the former in this action. But this did not affect the fellowship, for the simple reason that God had received them. "Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him" (Romans 14:3). One of our human problems has always been the false assumption that if we could not jointly participate in some things we could not work together in anything.

    What has been overlooked is that God's children can differ in Christ although they cannot differ about who He is. They need not regard everything alike, but everything they regard must be to the Lord. "He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it." So long as two persons exalt their relationship to the Lord above their differences they can keep both their differences and one another. It is only when what they think means more than what God did for them that they fall apart. This is not so much an indication of fidelity to God's word as it is a sign of egotism. It is a form of idolatry in which men worship their opinions more than they respect God's power and purpose. It is always a sin to destroy a brother for meat or for anything else!

    We do not create the fellowship for God has done that. He invites us to share in it by becoming His sons and daughters through faith. Our task is to demonstrate the beauty and strength of a fellowship based upon faith, to a cold and cynical world. We can best do this by manifesting an unbroken love for and attachment to those who differ with us about many things. The world expects those who see everything alike to work together, but to see those laboring in unity who do not concur with each other proves that they have discovered a dynamic more powerful than the carnal nature. It is for this reason that all division within the family of God is condemned. Such division is never once authorized as the solution to fraternal disagreement. Christ is not divided and those in Christ must not be.

    It is the thesis of this book that opinions and doctrinal interpretations are occasions for differences, but never for division. It is no sin to differ but it is a sin to divide. Congregations should provide an umbrella of love under which saints with divergent views can find shelter and be loved and cherished. We must make a distinction between a man and his rationalizations. We are not called upon to agree with one's ideas but to accept his person in Christ. Jesus died for men, not for opinions. When I receive men upon their faith in Jesus, I acknowledge the efficacy of His work, but I need not acknowledge the validity of their reasoning.

    My only creed must be Christ. Jesus is the gospel and the gospel is Jesus. The crowning truth of the gospel is that He is the Son of God and, therefore, Lord of all. If I demand that one adopt my view or explanation of a secondary matter, or surrender his own, in order to be received by me, that thing becomes my creed. Whatever one must believe or subscribe to in order to be accepted by any group is the creed of that group, and like all human creeds it is exalted to a position of prominence above the divinely-established fact that Jesus is the Messiah and God's Son. The only basis of koinonia is the relationship with the Son created by faith in Him. It is not orthodoxy of opinion, interpretation or explanation.

Understanding the simple, clarifying point above is key to understanding Christian unity. Anyone who has obeyed the gospel of Jesus Christ, remains in it, and loves one another, has koinonia one with another.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Identifying the light

I contemplated posting the whole eighth chapter of Carl Ketcherside's The Twisted Scriptures, but that would get a little cumbersome in this format.

Instead, I'll just post a clip here and point you to the PDF of the entire book where you can scroll down to the eighth chapter to read for yourself.

I realize Ketcherside's name will turn some readers off, but bear with me. I started reading the book determined that he was wrong and that I was going to prove to myself why. Instead, when I honestly re-examined the scriptures, I found amazingly simple truths that should have hit me over the head years ago. Maybe they'll hit you over the head, too! If not, drop me a line, I'd love to chat about it.


    Identifying the Light

    But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.

    What is the light? In this context the light is what God is, for God is light. The word "light" is used as a symbol for various qualities or things in the inspired scriptures. Sometimes it is used for divine revelation, and the unrevealed, the mysterious, is darkness. Sometimes it is used for reverence of the living God, and idolatry is darkness. More frequently it is used for knowledge, and ignorance is darkness. Only by studying the frame of reference in which the term is employed can one be certain of its meaning.

    In this connection, we can eliminate from consideration anything which it is not possible for man to possess in the same degree as God, that is, in an absolute or perfect degree. "God is light and in him is no darkness at all . . . If we walk in the light as he is in the light." This immediately excludes knowledge of God's will from consideration. It is obvious that none of us can have the same degree of mental perception as God. The finite mind cannot embrace the scope of the infinite. To walk in the light cannot mean either to perfectly understand God's will or to perfectly do it. This would require something we do not have in the flesh.

    Fortunately, we can determine from this brief epistle what light is, as John uses the word. Light is love. It is not, however, affection, sentiment or passion. The love of which John speaks is agape, the love which God had for us which prompted him to send Jesus to die for us in our unworthiness. It is that active and energetic good will which stops at nothing to achieve the good of the beloved object. It must be expressed. It can never be passive. It is apprehended in its demonstration which is always outreaching and outgoing. "Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us" (3:16). It is this in which we must walk. This is the light and Jesus was light embodied.

    Light is love and since the opposite of light is darkness, the darkness must be hate. Once this is grasped every sentence in the epistle falls into place like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and a beautiful picture results. Let us proceed with the proof of our assertion. To abide in the light is to love the brethren. "He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him" (2:10). If this is correct, hatred for the brethren will be darkness. "He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother is in darkness even until now" (2:9). This last is the equivalent of saying, "If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie" (1:6). "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar" (4:20).

    It may be urged that the completing phrase of verse 6 is "do not the truth." This is correct for if we walk in darkness "we lie and do not the truth." But it is by brotherly love that we know we are of the truth. "And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him" (3:19). To the Greeks, truth was the reality which was at the basis of all appearance. It was the ideal which was behind every semblance. It was the genuine. John is saying that those who are "in the truth" are obligated to walk according to it, and the reality behind God's whole purpose is love. If we say that we share in the divine nature (have fellowship with God), and walk in darkness (hate our brethren), we lie and do not the truth (miss the reality underlying the whole Christian structure).

    Personification of Love

    On what premise can we conclude that John introduces the theme of love in conjunction with his affirmation that the Word of life was manifested in a visible person? The answer is simply that it was the love of God which made eternal life manifest unto us. Because he loved us thus, we ought also to love one another. "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him" (4:9). "Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (3:16). "Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another" (4:11).

    The Son of God was God manifest in the flesh, reconciling the world unto himself. But that which was manifested was the Word of life which was with God in the beginning, and which was also God. But that light which was manifested was eternal life (1:2). It was this Word of life personalized which constituted the basis of the apostolic message. "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you." Eternal life is not extension of time but expression of love! Read the following carefully. "This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light" (1:5). "For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another" (3:11). "This is the message God is light." "This is the message . . . that we should love." There are not two messages. There is simply the message. It defines the nature of God and outlines the expression of that nature in those who are his sons.

    And if it be true that light is love, it must follow that, if God is light, God is love. On this the record is positive. "God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him" (4:16). "He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love" (4:8). To the serious student nothing else should be necessary to identify the light. When a writer says, "God is light," and in the very same letter twice explains what he means by saying, "God is love," it should require little intellectual ability to determine that in the context of that writer, light is love.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Saying it doesn't make it so

Calling a church a church, or declaring a church not to be a church doesn't make it so. As form follows function, so the reality of what constitutes a body of the Lord's people follows the key question of whether or not that body is made up of the Lord's people, and if they meet together for the purpose of edifying one another and praising God. If so, it is a church, or ekklesia. It is a congregation of believers. It may or may not be a very healthy congregation, and it may have a sectarian name on the building that some wouldn't be comfortable with. It may not even be very effective in accomplishing what God intended the church to accomplish. But it is a congregation of believers nonetheless. As Alexander Campbell once wrote, "he that lives in the wilderness still lives."

My point is that the organizational shells of denominations as embodied in their legal structures or traditional practices neither make them a church nor keep them from being a church, in and of themselves. Of course, some organizational practices have been more effective and some have been less effective at accomplishing the task of unifying, edifying, and building up the local body of believers in any given location. Some in these organizations have done things that run completely adverse to the goal of promoting godly lifestyles, such as appointing openly sinful and blasphemous individuals into leadership positions. In those cases, sinners are sinning while some Christians are voting for and applauding it. Moral depravity is not immune from rebuke under the guise of Christian unity.

But immoral individuals aside, the organizational scheme itself is neither a church nor an anti-church. It is plain vanilla, so to speak. It is merely a context in which people agree to meet together. It is a body of rules and regulations of men that are simultaneously as authoritative and meaningless in the eyes of God as the Boy Scout Manual. True, these rules and regulations are bad to the extent that Christians enforce them as the will of God and use them to divide God's people, but they are harmless to the extent that those who meet in organizations that have adopted the rules and regulations don't necessarily adhere to them or use them divisively. We have to separate the organization from the congregant.

This means that true believers, many of them, in fact, can and do exist within sectarian pastures (which have grown to include the Church of Christ), and that their allegience may be unintentially divided between a human superstructure and the Foundation of our faith. But our job as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ is to edify them in love and to be edified by them whereever possible. And if we think the edification only needs to go one way, then we've forgotten what the term "mutual edification" really means. In fact, we've forgotten the entire first half of the only verse using that phrase.

Who is a citizen?

I thought this was an interesting clip from an Alexander Campbell article in The Christian Baptist. The article is a fictitious dialogue constructed by Campbell to illustrate the fallacy of thinking that one must be re-baptized for the remission of sins if they were not aware of this blessing of regeneration when first baptized. This teaching has caused many of us to conscientiously but wrongly reject brethren for not understanding the full impact of their obedience to the gospel at the time of their obedience.


R. ...[A]s touching the remission of sins, an infant as much expected it in its sprinkling, as I in my first immersion.

A. That may be, for you say that you thought; nay, were assured, that your sins were remitted six months before you were immersed. But this, in my judgment, constitutes no reason why you should, after ten years citizenship in the kingdom of Christ, be again immersed. When I was naturalized a citizen of these United States, there were certain immunities and privileges attached to citizenship which I had not in my mind at that time, nor were they any inducement to me to be naturalized, any more than to that child now sleeping in the arms of its mother. But did that circumstance annul my naturalization and leave me an alien?

R. I dare not say there was no church of Christ, no kingdom of God all this time. But I will say the church was in the wilderness.

A. That helps you not. It was still a church, although it was in the wilderness; and this destroys your assumption. I admit that he who understands not fully the Lord's day, the Lord's supper, and Christian immersion, cannot fully enjoy the blessings of the gospel of Christ, and that it makes all the difference between the wilderness and the fruitful field to understand fully these institutions: but yet there are degrees both in faith and knowledge; and he that lives in the wilderness still lives.

R. I am candid to confess that I did not foresee this impediment in my way. But, come, does this greatly detract from the importance which you and others attach to the discovery of the capital item of the ancient gospel--baptism for the remission of sins? This indeed is the only item which obtains for the ancient gospel the eminence which it claims.

A. Not in the least. It stands true that this is its proper meaning. The not understanding of this institution has prevented many Christians from enjoying its benefits; but the not understanding it does not make them aliens from the kingdom of Jesus.

~Alexander Campbell

Monday, October 18, 2004

Winds of change

I don't want to lock myself in a box of only posting formal essays on this site. Beginning with this post, I will comment a little more casually on things as I see them, but I will probably not maintain permanent links to these posts in the sidebar menu. Some of these posts will be more applicable to the small segment of restoration movement churches that I'm familiar with (Church of Christ), but if you're from a different background, I guess you can just consider it "local color."

So, for what it's worth...

It seems to me that there are winds of change blowing through the churches. For those who instinctively think that all change is bad, just consider that most of Paul's letters to the churches were instructions for them to change. It doesn't take long for a church or a society to get nudged by the culture into the wrong direction. I think we all need a gentle tug back to the center of our faith sometimes.

Like it or not, the winds of change are here. As uncoordinated scripture readings often mesh seemlessly with the sermon presented from the pulpit, I've noticed a recurring discussion of unity among Christians. The Bakersfield, California congregation recently had their Labor Day meeting on the subject. I don't know the substance of what was presented since I wasn't able to attend, but I'm curious to learn more about what was discussed.

At the Anaheim congregation, we recently had a powerful lesson on Paul's letter to Titus about "sound doctrine"--that it was not considered by Paul to be peripheral debates and doubtful disputes, but exhortation to live godly lives. Recognizing the difference between the gospel, which brings us into citizenship in the kingdom, and Christian doctrine, which encourages us to remain in the gospel and live a life worthy of it, is one of the most unifying realizations a Christian can make.

We recently had another talk from a guest speaker at Anaheim on the subject of unity, uncoordinated with any of the previous discussions that I've been aware of, followed by a sermon yesterday about the two different definitions of the word "truth" (the "truth of the gospel" as opposed to "truth vs. fiction"). All of these lessons have been helpful, substantive, and unifying.

That was followed by some personal conversations later in the day with several brothers whose minds seemed to be centered on the question of unity. Maybe it's just me, but I sense a trend among people who recognize that brothers bickering with brothers over who is "right" on a particular doctrinal interpretation is patently against the New Testament teaching on being unified and longsuffering with brethren.

So what do I make of all this talk?

I'm not going to answer that, because my wife accuses me of being too optimistic sometimes. But let's just say that hope springs eternal that good Christians everywhere will put aside doctrinal partisanship and recapture the soul of the restoration movement.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The "Did they do it?" test

Yes or no? Did the new testament church do it or did they not? This was always my litmus test for church practices. If the new testament church didn't support Bible colleges, it seemed self-evident that it was wrong to do so. If they didn't hire professional pulpit ministers, then it seemed obvious that this, too, was wrong. Likewise with musical instruments, and a host of other controversial issues.

Conversely, if the new testament church did do something, I assumed it was self-evident that it was sinful not to do it ourselves. This makes some sense. After all, if they baptized every convert, we ought to do that. If they participated in the Lord's supper each first day of the week, we ought to do likewise. And the list goes on.

I see some wisdom in this line of thought, because it keeps us tethered to Biblical methods for doing things. It is arguably helpful in keeping a congregation from getting mired in commercialism, popularity contests, and layer upon layer of human-derived traditions.

But we should recognize that this test for church practices is not the determining factor in "getting it right." There are other, more rational ways to defend immersion and the Lord's supper. Practices that can't be supported on firmer Biblical ground than the "Did they do it?" test should not be insisted upon. Furthermore, in this age of freedom from the law, I'm not so sure that being tethered to legal precedent is what Jesus had in mind. No doubt, there are methods for accomplishing church functions that were simply not available to the first century Christians. Are they necessarily ruled out for us? I don't think so.

It is simply unwise and inconsistent to turn this method of deducing proper church practices into a binding law or test of fellowship between brethren. If we say that it is sinful not to do the things that the early church did, or to do things that the early church did not, we condemn ourselves along with the entirety of the Christian world.

Consider this list of things that the new testament church did not do:

  • They did not meet in church-owned buildings.
  • They did not advertise.
  • They apparently did not keep a common treasury unless there was a pressing need, such as the humanitarian aid to the Judean Christians.
  • They did not denominate themselves "The Church of Christ" or any other sectarian appellation, nor did they insist that others do so.
  • They did not call their assembly a "worship service."
  • They did not dissociate from other congregations of believers, but were instructed to receive one another just as Christ had received them. (Romans 15:1-7)

And consider this list of things that the early church did do, which, if taken as binding precedents, would cause uproar among some Christians today:

Some of these things may be appropriate for us to learn from and pattern our own practices after. However, we have no scriptural basis for dissociating ourselves from congregations who don't fit our idea of what the new testament church did or did not do in their assemblies. What one person deduces to have been a practice may simply be an incidental fact. What another person considers incidental may actually have spiritual ramifications. As Christians, we are freed from law, and are to exercise the liberty we've been given to the extent of our knowledge, intellect, faith, and understanding. That means being longsuffering, edifying, and even encouraging, to those who may have arrived at different conclusions at different points in their Christian walk.

I think the "Did they do it?" test has some value to us, intuitively. We have something to gain by asking the question, like wisdom and potentially insightful guidelines. When we see that we're doing something that the new testament church did not do, we ought to take notice and ask more questions. But we cannot maintain this question as the ultimate test of whether we do something or choose not to do something, nor of whether we associate with another group or not. In short, the "Did they do it?" test should be a starting point in our studies, not an ending point.

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Friday, October 08, 2004

Uniting saints or sects?

There is a difference between uniting saints and uniting sects. One task is possible, the other, not. Organizations are just that; organizations. They are not people. The objective of any organization, especially one incorporated as a legal entity, is to preserve itself, and any individual fighting against such an organization will die trying.

But people are a different matter altogether. People can be reformed, persuaded, encouraged, enlightened, motivated, and united with other people. Ecumenical attempts in the denominations fail because they are addressing unity from an organizational, top-down, perspective, rather than a grass roots, bottom-up perspective. I am not for ecumenical attempts to form organizational alliances between institutions whose very creeds, charters, and bylaws guarantee that there will be no unity. But I am very much in favor of saints reaching out to other saints within the sects to become more unified based solely on our common salvation. With that accomplished in the hearts and minds of the saints, whatever follows can only be a good thing.

The Anglican Church, and other Episcopalian churches in Europe, have been struggling for decades to retain any sense of relevance. There are actually cases of atheist "pastors" presiding over large churches there. The reason is that the organization is merely a shell that has been gradually infiltrated and filled by unbelievers over time.

Political parties provide similar examples. Contrary to popular thinking, they are not organizations that exist to promote a common platform. The most accurate way to think of a political party is that it is an organizational shell designed for the sole purpose of efficiently winning elections. People, over the course of generations, filter in and out of them bringing various ideological themes around which the current members can unite. As the people change, so does the agenda du jour.

That is how it is with denominations, Church of Christ or otherwise; a single congregation or a chain of them. They exist for the sole purpose of preserving themselves as uniquely identified bodies. Within those bodies, there may be many good people, committed to the Lord and to advancing His cause in their community and the world. But the denomination itself is an organizational shell. As the social climate changes to be stronger on family values, so will the people in these organizations. If the seminaries and social climate here in America become more like Europe, the leaders filling these organizations will be more like the atheists seen there.

What is a good Christian within such an organization to do? Fight to change the agenda of seminaries? I think that's a losing battle, since seminaries are generally tied through endowments and chartered connections to their affiliated denominations. They share the same organizational permanence of their sister organizations, and this is true in restoration and reformation churches.

Should good Christians fight to preserve or reform the organization of their sects? I think that is also the wrong battle, since that only furthers sectarianism. But neither should those outside the sects have the high goal of doing rhetorical battle with them. Both approaches only further sectarianism without ever dismantling the sect. While we always ought to denounce immorality, deviations from the gospel, and sectarianism, our goal in doing so should always be to persuade hearts and minds in the advancement of unity and the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. As hearts and minds change over time, the organizational shells of the places they worship will be either infiltrated by more committed believers, or abandoned to the atheists.

My guess is that the latter will gradually happen, but take heart, because this does not necessarily mean that atheists have invaded the Lord's church, per se. Rather, it simply means that atheists, like hermit crabs, will have infiltrated the organization shells once occupied by believers. True believers, immersed into Christ and united in the common faith, will see it and increasingly seek out other believers in their communities to advance the mutual edification of themselves and their brethren.

Our goal as Christians ought to be to make citizens of the kingdom and train those citizens in a Christ-like lifestyle once they are made. In our effort to be non-sectarian and undenominational, it is hypocritical to then set out to form our own sect, or our own denomination. Let's put our first century faith into practice and set out to unite the saints not the sects. A sect, by its very definition, is divided from the whole. A saint, by definition, is not. It's time we start acting like it.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Want to go to edification service?

We often call the Christian assembly "worship" or "worship service." But is the congregation a forum for worship and service to God, or is it to strengthen and build up believers? Is it for Him or for us? These are two very different philosophies that lead to two very different conclusions about church practices. I have long been in the former camp, looking to decipher the New Testament pattern of the assembly with a microscope for fear of offering "strange fire" as Nadab and Abihu did. I once argued that the "service" was not for us, but for Him. While not entirely untrue, it is certainly not so cut and dried.

There is not one reference to our corporate gathering as a "worship service." We can, of course, deduce that worship can take place within the assembly of the saints:

Hebrews 13:15 - Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name. (NKJV)

We can reasonably determine that a sacrifice constitutes accepted worship, so when we praise God in the assembly, we are worshiping Him. Fair enough. But the writer of Hebrews goes on:

Hebrews 13:16 - And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (NKJV)

So doing good in all forms and sharing with others also constitute acceptable sacrifices, or worship toward God. This does not have to be done in a group setting or by the group corporately. It can be. But it doesn't have to be. It's worship in either case.

Is teaching one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs an act of worship? I think it can be in an individual sense, since Paul wrote to the Christians at Ephesus to sing and make melody "to the Lord:"

Ephesians 5:18-21 - And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of God.(NKJV)

But the worshipful singing and making melody to the Lord could also take place absent from the assembly, whereas the instruction to speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs could not. If our assembly fails to edify the Christians participating in it, I would conclude that it was not effective at meeting the spirit of these verses. Acceptable worship may have been offered in the heart of the individual who participated worshipfully, but if the brethren weren't edified, it could just as easily have been done at home in one's personal devotion. Paul implies as much when he says:

1 Corinthians 14:26 - How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (NKJV)

There is no purpose in doing anything as an assembly unless it edifies. This is why Paul told Corinth:

1 Corinthians 14:28 - But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.

This brings us to the Lord's supper. Surely this is a pure act of worship--a "sacrament" as some call it--that must be administered according to a fixed pattern, right? Some might return to Paul's letter to support this idea:

1 Corinthians 11:16 - The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (NKJV)

If the cup is the fellowship of his blood, and the bread is the fellowship of his body, reasonable people can conclude that to partake of them is an act of worship. I would agree. But note that our participation together as a congregation is what makes a congregation "one bread" and "one body." We are one body because we partake of that one bread. So communion with Jesus' body and blood is for the purpose of solidifying our communion with each other. To fail to commune with our Lord in this activity is to fail to commune with our fellow brothers and sisters, so it is evident that the Lord's supper is as relevant to our own strengthening as it is to our worship toward God. Other scriptures add another facet to the picture:

Luke 22:19 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." (NKJV)

It is true that anytime we follow the Lord's instructions with a heart of humble obedience, it is worship. But note that Jesus tells the disciples the reason for the Lord's supper: "do this in remembrance of me." The Lord's supper is an activity designed for us to remember the Lord's sacrifice, and by that remembrance, it should invigorate us anew to serve Him. It is not a rote "sacrament" to check off of our to-do list. We love him because he first loved us, and it is a memorial of that love, intended to spur us to respond in kind. This is further borne out by Paul:

1 Corinthians 11:23-25- For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." 25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." (NKJV)

But there is an additional purpose to the Lord's supper that Paul mentions in the next verse:

1 Corinthians 11:26 - For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes. (NKJV)

Each time we commune with our Lord and with each other in this manner, we are proclaiming, or preaching, His death. To whom are we preaching, to God or men?

The conclusion of all of this is that no part of our assembly is to be done with the exclusive goal of worshipping our Creator. This may sound shockingly sacreligious and postmodern at first. It is not. No doubt, we ought to assemble to worship our Creator, but we should never let the goal of edifying the brethren escape our highest aspirations. It is possible for individuals to come together to worship the Lord as individuals without edifying the brethren, but I think that's better left to our personal devotion. In the assembly, it is better to edify each other while also bringing a worshipful attitude toward our Creator.

If worship is our only purpose in meeting together, we are constrained by the lessons of Nadab and Abihu, and Cain and Abel to offer to our Lord an assembly, appropriately patterned in every last detail according to His blueprint. But when we do that, we've mistaken the tool for the thing that the tool is intended to accomplish. The point of the assembly is not the assembly itself, but the edification of the saints, just as the point of the Lord's supper is not the pattern for doing it, but the doing of it.

It is impossible to pattern the assembly after an exact blueprint, because we don't have an exact blueprint without resorting to doubtful deductions and opinions. Should the Lord's supper be practiced in an upper room? That is the only discernable pattern in the scriptures. Should it be done in the evening? That was most certainly the pattern of the New Testament church. Should we stop meeting in church owned property? The New Testament church met in homes, not church buildings.

But fortunately, we are not under a law of patterns and blueprints, but a law of liberty. The patterns we see for the assembly have not been handed down as "the pattern in the Mount," but as loving examples intended to edify and build us up in our common faith. We are to use what practices we do have exemplified in various scriptures as tools to accomplish our primary task as a body--to edify each other, and in so doing, glorify our God. So is our assembly a "worship service?" I suppose it can be, but perhaps a better term is "edification service." Next time we go to edification service, let's worship our God in spirit and in truth while we're there.

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Monday, October 04, 2004

Freed from the law

When God spoke to Moses on the Mount, he delivered to him both a detailed, proscriptive law, and a pattern for the construction of the tabernacle. There were details for nearly every contingency. When questions arose about the application of a particular law, Moses would receive supplemental instruction directly from God to clarify.

Was God's pattern for the tabernacle more like a sketch or a blueprint? Was the Law He gave to Moses more like a sketch or a blueprint? Are the new testament scriptures more like a sketch or a blueprint?

I think it is evident that the patterns given on Mount Sinai were more like blueprints, while the new covenant "pattern" is more like a sketch. While we sometimes wish we could have every detail of our service to God spelled out, we should be careful what we wish for. A law like that has been tried before, and mankind failed miserably in meeting up to it.

There is a great deal of difference between the proscriptive nature of the law, which was designed to set specific boundaries for God's people, and the "law of Christ," which is meant to draw us to Him out of our own free will. One is like a fence, the other like a magnet. One was a book of codes, the other is a law written on our hearts, making the book of codes obsolete.

Hebrews 8:13 - In that He says, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

As I raise my children, this difference between the two concepts is very obvious to me, the lawgiver of the family. It is not uncommon for one of my kids to come to me and say "they won't let me play cards with them." It is extremely frustrating, because I keep trying to teach them that I shouldn't have to make a law for every contingency that comes up. I shouldn't have to issue a verdict for each situation, and say "let her play" or "wait until the next game."

They should be able to take the principle of love for their brothers and sisters and their desire to please me, and apply that to each situation. If two kids are excluding a third, the third, ideally, should act out of love for the others and not press the issue. At the same time, the two who are doing the excluding should be ashamed when they recognize what they've done to their brother or sister, and work to make amends.

But alas, I'm raising kids, not adults. So I continue to lovingly tell my kids of my goal, that I don't want to have to make legislation for every disagreement they have. When I do have to legislate from the bench, usually both parties are sorry they escalated their complaint that far.

But I'm sure that I only feel a small slice of the frustration that our Father in heaven must feel when we find ourselves wanting, needing, and searching high and low for laws to satisfy every contingency in our quest to be like His Son. It's normal. It's natural. But, like my kids when they need me to clarify "my law," I wonder if it's not a sign of immaturity. And I wonder that, based in part on Paul's letter to the Christians in Galatia.

In that letter, Paul writes:

Galatians 3:10-12 - For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them." But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for "the just shall live by faith." Yet the law is not of faith, but "the man who does them shall live by them."

Recently, reported a real-life illustration of one of Paul's points in this chapter:

Earlier this month, the staff, faculty, and Board of Trustees at Virginia's private Alexandria Country Day School had a Mexican-themed dinner complete with margaritas. For some reason, the leftovers were placed in a school refrigerator. On September 10, it was mistaken for "limeade" by school workers and actually served at lunch to students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades. The mix-up came after the school ran out of milk. An embarrassed and contrite Harvey promised that booze will now be banned on campus and all faculty parties will be held off-site.

The first transgression was in giving the children alcohol, but another law was added because of that first transgression. Now, no alcohol or staff parties will be allowed on campus. This is exactly what Paul meant when he wrote:

Galatians 3:20 - What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions... (NKJV)

Laws are added because of transgressions. They are meant to fence us in with explicit boundaries, like a training leash for a dog. They keeps us from going too far and exercising our own judgment, because the judgment of how far we can go has already been made for us. When we try to run past the limits of the law, we are yanked back by its short leash. But the law, like the training leash, is only a tutor, and was meant to be set aside when the training was complete.

Galatians 3:21-25 - ...if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (NKJV)

It is both liberating and frightening to consider that we are no longer under a schoolmaster, but that faith has been substituted for law. The new covenant letters are not a set of regulations to be interpreted and wielded as legal documents. They are not like the training leash, which confines us, but represent the setting aside of that old leash. The new covenant letters are a collection of inspired words intended to unify and edify, not divide and confine.

There comes an age where every child has to make decisions for himself in the real world. He must reach a point of accountability and maturity where God expects him to take responsibility for his own free will. That is where we are at in world history with respect to mankind's relationship with God. We have been entrusted with our own free will, and may use it to serve ourselves, our peers, or our God. That means we are no longer fenced in by a book of codes, rules, and regulations.

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. (NIV)

In Paul's letter to the Colossian Christians, he gets even more explicit:

Colossians 2:13-14 - And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (NKJV)

I'm convinced of this: He didn't nail one codebook of requirements to the cross in order to institute another. We are truly freed from the law, but we can use our newfound liberty in Christ for good, or we can use it for self-indulgence. To use it for self-indulgence with no regard for others or for our God is sin. To use it for others and for service to our God is godliness. Just as in our civic life, with freedom comes responsibility.

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Our pattern is a person

Many of us have labored too long under the impression that our ultimate pattern to emulate is the new testament church, as derived by a rational analysis of the language of the new testament. This concept has some value in determining God's will, no doubt. But interpreting these patterns as our law to be bound upon others and ourselves has obscured our true pattern, which is a person. Our ultimate pattern is Jesus Christ himself. So how do we use Him as our pattern?

Titus 2:11 - For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,

How does the grace of God, as embodied in Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross, teach us anything, or cause us to act in a godly manner? To understand that, it is helpful to look at the role of a man's leadership in his family. That will give us an idea of how Jesus himself led his disciples and how we are to submit to Him as our pattern:

Ephesians 5:22-24 - Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.

I'm sure many husbands have read these verses and said, "That's right, I really need to lay down the law!" But they have missed the entire point. Did Jesus get his disciples to submit to his leadership by laying down the law and forcing them to submit? Or did he do it by humbly serving them to the point of death, causing them to want, out of their own free will, to submit to his leadership? That is the pattern for a husband's leadership, and that is the pattern for Jesus' leadership. Paul goes on:

Ephesians 5:25-29 - Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church.

Jesus Christ loved us so much that He lived to serve us, his own creation. He sacrificed his own life for us. He did not die in order to institute a body of regulations and codes to teach his disciples how to live a godly life. "The grace of God that brings salvation" teaches us to live a godly life by setting an example of love so deep, so endearing, that we are drawn to respond in kind to it once we come to believe it. We are not fenced into it by a set of laws.

Jesus Christ was a servant-leader--he led by showing an example of humility, honesty, sincerity, and above all, love for those he wanted to follow him. That is the how the grace of God draws us to Jesus Christ. That is how we can be without a code of regulations, but with an inspired book of encouragement to live a godly life. And that is the way our pattern is a person.

But in trying to follow our Pattern, how do we know what sin is? The new testament scriptures do not contain all definitions of it. What is sin for one person, because of his conscience, may not be sin to another. Neither do the scriptures contain all the definitions of what it means to be godly. There are an infinite number of ways to sin, just as there are an infinite number of ways to pattern our lives after the one and only true pattern that we have, Jesus Christ himself. Christianity maintains its relevance for every stage of human maturity because we should constantly be searching to discover new ways to serve Him.

But He has not left us without law altogether. There is a law, and there is a commandment for all believers. John writes:

John 14:15 - "If you love Me, keep My commandments."

What is that commandment?

Mark 12:30-31 - And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

Jesus spoke the following:

John 13:34 - A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.

Many years later, John wrote this:

1 John 2:7 - Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning.

And this:

1 John 3:11 - For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

1 John 3:23 - And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.

It is clear that Jesus is a lawgiver, and that he did bring us a law. But it is the law of faith in Him and love for our brothers. That is the ultimate pattern that He laid down for us when He lived on this earth. The hope that we have in Jesus Christ does not compel us; it impels us to live a godly life. John writes in 1 John 3:3 that "everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure."

"We shall be like Him" in the resurrection, he says, and because of this hope, we strive to purify ourselves, just as He is pure. That, brothers, is what it means to make our Pattern a person. If we have been raised with him in the likeness of His death, let us also be like him in our life.

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