Obedience: not if, but how
It may seem shocking to our sensibilities to speak this way, but the apostolic epistles are not Christian law, just as the Decalogue is not a governing law for us under the New Covenant. We are bound to the spirit of both, but the letter of neither. (Before you jump out of your skin, ask yourself whether we are to follow the letter of the command to wash each other's feet, or the spirit of it.) That doesn't mean the epistles are not authoritative. They most certainly are. But they were simply never meant to be viewed, dissected, and exposited as legal documents. The question that Christians really face, then, is not if to obey them--that is quite obvious--but how to obey them.
Consider some legal questions we have to answer if we consider the Book a legal document:
- Does the Christian law, as noted above, include the command to wash each other's feet? To greet one another with a holy kiss? To have women in the assembly veil themselves? To have women keep silent in all church assemblies? Which women? Just married women, or single women as well? How about girls or unimmersed women?
- Do approved examples carry legal authority, like meeting in upper rooms for the Lord's Supper? Using a single cup? Baptizing in a natural body of water? Using messengers rather than bank accounts to transfer "benevolence funds" to needy saints?
- How much can we infer from the absence of a particular example, like church-sponsored Bible colleges? Individually supported Bible colleges? Separate classes for different age groups? Hired preachers? What about church-owned buildings, which are not countenanced in the scriptures? Fellowship halls? Area-wide singings? Cooperative arrangements between congregations?
I do not throw these questions out there in order to confuse the issue, but to clarify it. If we keep doing what we're doing, we'll keep getting what we're getting. That is the clarifying point in all of this. If we don't recognize the fallacy in our ideological presuppositions, we'll keep getting the same superficial debates about forms, methods, and precedents, rather than the weightier matters, like shaping every facet of our lives after the Pattern, and bringing Him to those who don't yet know Him.
Am I naïve to question the "patternology" hammered out over the last century of Church of Christ history, and pin my hopes on the pure and simple gospel? Maybe. But I'm a student of history, as many of my brothers in the restoration movement churches are. If we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it, as the saying goes.
After all, unity (not a passive unity, but an active unity that takes effort) is plainly commanded by both Jesus himself and his apostles. He prayed for it, and we can be assured that it pains him when he doesn't see it among his followers. Let's be honest, though, and come to grips with the fact that unity on the basis of uniform doctrinal opinion is not humanly possible. To enforce this concept of unity from the top is tyranny, and to promote it from the ranks creates dissention. I'm convinced there is a sounder scriptural basis for our unity.
The problem is not that we need to devote more intellectual resources to the futile questions that have plagued Churches of Christ until we can announce to the world that, at long last, we are unified. The problem lies in our understanding of what unity is. We defy human nature and our God-endowed intellects to expect uniformity of opinion among disciples of Jesus Christ, yet that is what most 21st century Churches of Christ have come to demand.
Do we have to throw out most of the New Testament to obtain unity? Of course not. The inspired writings are not at fault for our disagreements. We simply need to readjust our frame of reference when we read the New Testament, and remove the ideological veil from our eyes. The proper frame of reference starts and ends with the cross. When Jesus died on the cross, he did not nail one set of codes to it in order to institute another.
Consequently, when Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus, he was not writing to provide legal documents for us to dissect and systematize into a theory of evangelistic practice. Yes, Titus was told to do the work of a "bringer of good tidings" (euaggelistes), and Timothy was to commit Paul's teachings to faithful men. But I'm confident that those tidings and teachings Paul refers to were not the tedious creedal issues that divide Christians today.
He wrote to Timothy, his longtime helper, to encourage, strengthen, and instruct him how to behave in the "dwelling place" (oikos) of God, which is the "gathering of called out citizens" (ekklesia) of the living God. If the gathering remains faithful to the Person who called it, it will be the pillar and ground--not of All Truth--but of The Truth, Jesus Christ himself.
Paul's other letters are not legal documents either. When he wrote to the church at Corinth, it was not to issue a legal opinion on women wearing a napkin on their head in the assembly, or meals being consumed in fellowship halls that didn't even exist yet. When he preached until midnight in an upper room, he was not laying down a precedent for us to legalistically follow. Nor was he doing so, in my opinion, when he sent his fellow laborer, Titus, to appoint elders in Crete. Just as the former was a means to an end--the means being preaching in an upper room, the end being the edification of the gathered saints--I believe his commission of Titus was also a means to an end. The circumstances surrounding Titus' journey may have been largely incidental, but the objective--the encouragement of the Cretan saints and the appointment of overseers there--was not.
The New Testament writers had a thought in mind when they wrote, and their words were intended to express that thought, not to build a case for this or that "doctrinal position." Viewing their words in that context makes an enormous difference in the interpretations we draw from them. It is the difference between unity and discord.
While I don't believe it is possible to unify any group of organizations, I do believe it is possible to unify people within them. On that hope I rest my prayer that the restoration movement begun in the 19th century will someday yield the intended fruit of unity among believers. It was perhaps as naïve and bold a goal in the early 1800s as it is now. At least now we have the benefit of hindsight to add to the discussion.