I think we have to admit, beloved child of covenant, that as we continue our life-long quest for authentic Christianity, navigating the “ins” and “outs” of our daily walk with God in the context of having to deal with other people and their expectations of us can sometimes be quite tricky. One the one hand, we have the Apostle Paul pleading with us to “not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, NASB). On the other hand, there are all these people in our lives with their various interpretations of scripture, their personal opinions, their denominational doctrines, and their religious traditions; and, though we love them, their desire for us to conform to their expectations often feels very much like “a yoke of slavery.” Furthermore, I think we sometimes fear down deep in our hearts that, if we let them, these people and their relentless expectations will, indeed, become exactly that—“a yoke of slavery”—and that we will end up serving them, rather than serving our Lord Jesus Christ.
I hope our mutual exploration into these matters can help us find the firm footing we need to be able to cope with the expectations of others in a spirit of love, while clinging to the truth and freedom that we find in Christ. I also hope that the particular issues and examples I feel compelled to point out to you in this chapter, in order to clarify my message, will be received in light of the love with which this message is being shared.
Let’s begin by building on some concepts shared in previous chapters. Remember that Jesus told His apostles, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19, NASB). As we have noted, there are always people who want to “bind” where God has not “bound” by inventing rules and regulations not explicitly set forth in God’s word and forbidding others to participate in activities that God has not specifically forbidden. Likewise, there are always people who want to “loose” where God has not “loosed” by negating the importance or relevance of those things that God has specifically commanded; or by permitting, encouraging, and even advocating for sinful things that are, indeed, explicitly forbidden in God’s word.
If you haven’t noticed already, you will soon discover that there is, apparently, no end to the human tendency to want to supplant Christ’s authority with one’s own by insisting that “my way is the only right way and is, therefore, God’s will for everybody.” Instead of heeding the scripture that says, “not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other” (I Corinthians 4:6, NASB), human beings are notoriously adept at continually exceeding “what is written” in their pursuit of “the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion” (Colossians 2:23, NASB).
The result is division. Modern Christianity has been separated into many different divisions [denominations] based on particular doctrines and traditions of men around which they rally and by which they identify themselves. So persuasive and rampant is this human tendency to take matters into our own hands that even some of God’s new covenant children are tempted to denominationalize the ekklesia with particular names, doctrines, and traditions over which they draw lines of fellowship, but that have no direct bearing on one’s salvation or relationship with God.
We find an example of this very problem in the earliest days of Christianity when the Apostle Paul had to scold the family of God in Corinth, saying:
For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided?
(I Corinthians 1:11-13, NASB)
As the passage above reveals, human beings have always been prone to wanting to have things their own way, even if it is not necessarily God’s way. The Apostle Paul warned the young evangelist, Timothy, that he would encounter this human tendency, saying:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.
(2 Timothy 4:2-4, NASB)
I have to admit that, in times past, whenever I encountered this particular passage, I always had in view those rank liberals among us who view God’s holy expectations as too restrictive and burdensome. I always associated it with the passage in the Psalms that says, “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!” (Psalm 2:1-3, NASB). But over the years, I’ve come to realize that Paul’s warning to Timothy extends equally to those self-proclaimed conservatives among us who, just like their liberal counterparts, have long since parted company with scriptural authority in favor of their beloved traditions. And if the definition of a “liberal” means one who does not recognize or adhere to Bible authority but, rather, buys into some other religious authority, or who seeks to establish his or her own authority for what they believe and practice, then, ironically, these so-called “conservatives” turn out to be really nothing more than rank liberals in disguise. Chew on that thought for a little bit!
It has been my observation that the conservatives, even more than their liberal opposites—and they’re really just two sides of the same legalistic coin—love to “accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2 Timothy 2:3, NASB); thus fostering and propagating the spirit of denominationalism. I marvel at how many alleged conservative churches and parachurch organizations cringe in fear at the very prospect of listening to anyone who may dare to challenge their status quo. And so, I’ve come to recognize that there are people of both the liberal and conservative persuasion—and, oh, how I hate having to use these misleading labels—who are far more dedicated to promoting their particular party-spirit than they are to pursuing ever deepening investigations into realms of truth, love, and shared community.
While our quest for authentic Christianity is certainly plagued with various pitfalls that can dissuade us from our intended purpose, I am convinced that a legalistic party-spirit, and the denominational tendencies it spawns, is among the most subtle and dangerous. I want to share with you the following examples, stemming from my own spiritual background and religious heritage, to illustrate why I feel this way.
From the earliest days of what we call the “Restoration Movement” in America, many modern churches associated with the movement have paid lip-service to the mantra, said to have originated with Thomas Campbell (1763-1864), that states: “We speak where the Bible speaks, and we are silent where the Bible is silent” (Mitchell, 2013). While that is a perfectly good goal to pursue and motto to live by, the problem has been that people tend not only to speak where the Bible speaks but, where the Bible is silent, they go ahead and speak anyway; and then bind their personal opinion and private interpretation upon others as if it were the law of God.
For example, many of these same churches once touted the maxim, “No creed but Christ!” This is a very good philosophy for the new covenant children of God to live by. According to Merriam-Webster, a “creed” is: “a statement of the basic beliefs of a religion; an idea or set of beliefs that guides the actions of a person or group” (Creed, 2014). To say that we have “no creed but Christ” is to acknowledge that we rely on no ecclesiastical body of doctrine—no system of religious beliefs, or teachings, or rules of conduct—to identify us as the new covenant children of God other than our saving relationship with Christ. In other words, if we are disciples of Christ, and if we, by faith, abide in a saving relationship with Him, then we are, indeed, recognized as God’s own children in accordance with the promises and terms of the new covenant. We need no other body of doctrine by which to identify ourselves or recognize others within the body of Christ. The concept of, “no creed but Christ” is a very good perspective on the teachings of the New Testament and reflects beautiful new covenant thinking.
The problem is that this movement—initially a restorative and unifying initiative, and one of the fastest growing movements in America—over time, seems to have fallen prey to a menagerie of denominational creeds by which it now seeks to identify itself and by which it tends to judge the faithful from the errant—creeds and by-laws, I might add, that have little, if anything, to do with anyone’s personal relationship with Christ.
As evidence of this denominational kind of thinking, I offer the following points taken from a document distributed by a relatively well-known congregation from within this particular movement. The document is meant to be used as a screening tool to determine who this particular church can and cannot have fellowship with in their missionary efforts to proclaim their version of the “gospel” in remote locations around the world. According to this particular church, one must agree to, and sign off on, at least sixteen different points of doctrine, including the following:
- The Bible specifies only one kind of music in the New Testament to be used in worship to God and that is singing (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19). Anything else, such as playing musical instruments, humming or imitating musical instruments with our mouth, is not commanded and not pleasing to God in our worship to Him. There is also no example for choirs, solos or singing groups in worship to God since these verses state we are to speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.
- The Bible teaches that the Lord’s supper should be taken only on the first day of the week (I Corinthians 11:20; Acts 20:7) as a part of our worship to God and every week has a first day.
- The Bible states that a woman may not lead in prayer, teach, or be in a position of authority over a Christian man (I Timothy 2:11-12; I Corinthians 14:34).
- The Bible teaches that false teachers are to be marked and avoided (Romans 16:17-18; Jude 9-11; Titus 1:9-11; II Timothy 4:3). This would include any activity, meeting or lectureship which is organized and sponsored by known false teachers and where false teaching is promoted. If we fellowship false teachers we share in their evil deeds (II John 9-11). We, the elders at __________, do not feel you are avoiding false teachers if you continually attend such events.
- The Bible states that marriage is for life and the only reason for divorce in God’s eyes is for fornication; then the only one free to remarry is the innocent party (Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9; Luke 16:18). Further, for those who refuse this teaching, the Bible teaches they should be disfellowshipped (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
These are only a few of the specific items on their list; and they go on they make it clear that their list is in no way exhaustive. Notice that they begin each of the above statements with the phrase, “The Bible teaches…” and not “We believe the Bible teaches…” or “Our interpretation of Bible teaching is…” It appears that they have already come to the conclusion that what they believe IS what the Bible teaches; as though their private interpretations are inerrant and authoritative.
What is interesting to me is that their list makes no mention of where people stand in their conviction toward homosexuality, abortion, the proliferation of sexuality and violence in the media, materialism and the idolatry it fosters, or any number of other important social, political, and spiritual issues assailing the body of Christ in the modern era.
Their list does not even mention where one stands in his or her understanding of the application of the blood of Christ or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. At least, in scripture, these two items did, on occasion, help to identify the body of Christ. When the Apostle Paul first came to the city of Ephesus, the Bible says that he found some disciples there. Wanting to know whether or not these people really were authentic new covenant children of God, he asked them:
“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
(Acts 19:2-5, NASB)
The Apostle Paul here uses the word “believed” in a generic sense—inclusive of those commandments of God whereby we initially demonstrate our faith in Christ: i.e., repentance, confession, and baptism. In Paul’s mind, if these people knew nothing about the Holy Spirit, and how He is given as a gift to dwell within us when we are baptized into Christ, then how could they have had a proper understanding of baptism and its importance to our salvation?
Remember, from the earliest days of Christianity, in the very first gospel sermon ever preached—Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost—it is recorded: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, NASB). God’s children have always understood that baptism is “for the forgiveness of your sins” because that is the moment one comes “into Christ” and “into His death” (Romans 6:3, NASB); and when that occurs, every obstacle that separates the sinner from the holiness of God is washed away by the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit is then free to dwell within us. So a valid question one might actually ask in regard to ascertaining someone’s current relationship with God is, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were believed?”
But is this question, regarding the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, included anywhere, in any form or fashion, on the aforementioned “elders’ list”? No! The list includes only the narrow dogma whereby, in their own minds, the elders of that particular church derive a sort of unique spiritual identity in keeping with their traditions; and, thereby, are able to denominate themselves from all the other religious groups on the scene.
May I give you one more example? I was recently looking for some addresses and phone numbers of people I know and love. So I went to the internet to look at an online directory of churches with which some of these people minister. I noticed that the fellowship with which I currently minister was not in the directory. So I went to the data entry form to learn more about what I might need to do to have our information included. But the first things that jumped out at me, at the very top of the form, was the following statement:
Read the following two paragraphs before completing this form.
Our directory listings are exclusively designed for the churches of Christ and no other. We will not list churches who use musical instruments in their worship services, and if your church uses a different name please do not list here. (Garcia, 2014)
While I understand what the online directory is intending to accomplish—people don’t like surprises when they are on travel—still, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “So simply being in a saving relationship with God and having a living and active faith in Christ is no longer enough?” Just going by the directory listing criteria, it appears as if it is not enough to have come to Christ on His terms and to have entered into a covenant relationship with Him. It is not enough to have been baptized into Christ “for the forgiveness of your sins” and to have received “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It is not enough to simply “speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where the Bible is silent,” and to have “no creed but Christ.” In fact, it appears as if Jesus is not enough, anymore! Now, it’s Jesus AND wearing the right “name!” Now it’s Jesus AND singing “a cappella!”
I guess my real concern is that the directory criteria listing makes it clear that it is for the “churches of Christ and no other”; and therefore, “We will not list churches who use musical instruments…” So then, any church using musical instruments in worship is not a church of Christ? Wow! I’m wondering to myself, “When did God make these people the keepers of the Lamb’s Book of Life?”
I think the above statement from the online directory helps us see that the problem does not reside with only a few congregations here and there; but that it has become a systemic issue permeating an entire movement of people and churches that were once inclusive—dedicated to breaking down denominational barriers—but have now become incredibly exclusive to the point of dividing over names and doctrinal issues not even discussed in scripture.
Sometime my heart breaks, dear covenant child, and I’m left more than a little disconcerted at all the little legalistic details that people who claim to have some knowledge of God’s word want to argue about; and over which they, sometimes, even want to draw lines of fellowship. Things like: how often and when should we partake of the Lord’s supper together? Should we follow Jesus’ example implicitly and share the supper once a year at the time of the Jewish Passover on a Thursday evening, with a small group, in an upper room, accompanied by some kind of love feast—to simulate the Passover—with at least two prayers—one for the unleavened bread, another for the wine, and using only one cup and one loaf? Or may the Lord’s supper be observed by a large congregation, in a big auditorium, substituting Welches grape juice for the new wine, and using multiple cups—perhaps hundreds—and multiple loaves, instead of just one? And should the bread first be broken and then distributed, or should each person break from the loaf individually. Must the Lord’s supper be observed annually? Or must it be observed every single Sunday, and only on Sunday; as the elders’ list above dictates? And what about music in worship; must it only be “a cappella“—an Italian word meaning, “in the manner of the chapel” (A Cappella, 2014)—or in the form of a Gregorian chant? Or may we use instrumental accompaniment, and employ modern four part harmony? Are choirs okay? What about solos? What about song leaders or worship directors? And just what is the woman’s role in the church, anyway? May a woman read a passage of scripture in the presence of a man? May a woman pray out loud, hand-in-hand, together with a man? May a woman serve communion? May a woman baptize someone? On and on the arguments go, fussing and fighting in Pharisaical fashion over every jot and tittle of some self-perceived version of religious law; everybody thinking that their position is, of course, the scriptural one. They are, “blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24, NASB).
To me, it is all so sad because, whether I should or not, I tend to have so much higher expectations of people. Not that my thinking, or my insight, or my interpretations of scripture are any more accurate than anyone else’s—I claim no exclusive corner on truth and try to respect everybody’s position, whether I agree with them or not—but I would like to think that, with a little time and some serious Bible study, we could all rise to some appreciable level of new covenant thinking. And it’s disappointing when we look to some of these people for potential leadership, support, and encouragement toward eternal kingdom goals, only to be met with petty arguments over some irrelevant point of doctrine.
This is not being conservative. It is being traditional, for sure; maybe even legalistic, perhaps, but it’s not being conservative. Being conservative—if that is how one want to label himself—is learning “not to exceed what is written” (I Corinthians 4:6, NASB) by refusing to make up rules and regulations that are derived from inference, private interpretations, and human opinions and then binding said rules on others and holding them accountable as though they were the word of God. Being conservative is refraining from drawing lines of fellowship and brotherhood except where the Bible clearly, succinctly, and explicitly draws them. And being conservative is refusing to be intimidated or controlled by people’s legalistic tendencies and denominational doctrines; but rather, to “keep standing firm” and “not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1, NASB).
Whether or not you and I agree with any or all of the above points of doctrine on the elders’ list, or whether or not we have a problem with the online directory criteria, is completely beside the point. Sadly, people do not seem to comprehend that it is not our agreement or disagreement with particular doctrines or traditions that is at issue here. Rather, the issue is elevating these doctrines and traditions to a level equal with, or even surpassing, the word of God—even to the point where we seek to identify the body of Christ and draw lines of fellowship with one another over such matters.
People don’t seem to grasp the fact that the very existence of documents like the elders’ list above—meant to draw lines of fellowship—as well as qualifiers like those stated in the online directory, constitutes a creed; or, if they do, they don’t seem to care—they’re happy with their creeds. But what we need to realize is that it’s one thing to share, discuss, study and help one another come to a clearer understanding of a passage of scripture; and quite another to inculcate our private interpretations of scripture upon someone else and then hold them accountable to us and to our personal beliefs. One is good Bible study. The other is taking authority unto ourselves that the Lord has not granted to us; and then attempting to subject others to a “yoke of slavery.”
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