Hank asked the question in the comments on my last post “what makes a church not a church of Christ”. This post won’t answer that completely but will begin a conversation in that direction.
First, a clarification…when I am talking about Church of Christ I am talking about it in a biblical sense and not exclusively of the group that I am a part of known as “Churches of Christ” in the Restoration Movement. Church of Christ is a fancy way of saying Christ’s church just as the wife of Matt would be Matt’s wife. So the universal, biblical church of Christ is the church that belongs to Christ and includes all of who God/Christ include in their church. God knows who his people are. We have tried to make it our business to figure that out for ourselves. We won’t always get that right. When we put ourselves in the seat of making judgment calls on who is in and who is out we put ourselves in a position man is not nearly wise enough, powerful enough, holy enough or mature enough to fully understand. Put simply, we are not God.That doesn’t mean we cannot discern what is right and what is wrong. It does mean that our perception of things, the reality of things and understanding of God’s will and the scriptures will never be as accurate as God’s.
But there is a tension here. There is a tension because there is such a thing as truth and there is such a thing as following Jesus and the Bible actually does teach us a thing or two about what God wants us to do to be his children and how we then are to live as individuals and worship as a church body. Here is the key question – how do we uphold what scripture calls God’s people to do and to be just as Paul did (many of his letters were correctives to the churches that had major problems, as seen in the last post) without overstepping our bounds in making wrong or unmerciful judgments?
First, it starts with humility
and the confession that we don’t have it together ourselves. As right as we may think all of our worship practices are we still sin and are in need of forgiveness. It is important to start with the understanding that we aren’t saved because we are perfect or because we figured out the perfect pattern or hands down best interpretive framework (that people in the 1800 years prior didn’t have and so were just out of luck).
We are saved because God loves imperfect us. Too many people promote a system that gets you in and keeps you in with perfect interpretation (which is you having to line up with their take on everything that is said in scripture and even things scripture never talks about – matters of silence) and perfect practice (which even they don’t do if you compare what they do to the early church in all manners, as they claim we should do). If those who say they only do what scripture teaches really did that they would meet in homes, not take up weekly offerings but instead meet needs by selling of their own possessions and giving freely and taking up offerings for special needs, fire all the staff, select leadership positions by casting lots, take the Lord’s supper as a meal as was clearly the example in the early church, greet with kisses, authorize women to pray in the assembly with covered heads, meet together daily, boldly proclaim the message publicly, be growing exponentially, and so on. But I don’t see anyone doing that who is saying how strictly we must abide by everything the New Testament instructs and by all its examples. Why the inconsistency? You can’t call audibles and make excuses (saying things you don’t do were cultural or that you do thinks scripture is silent on because it is necessary) for yourself and then chastise others when they do the same thing.
Second, it goes back to the Bible
with an eye for three things…what the Bible clearly teaches as necessary (not all examples necessarily insist that we imitate the practice and not all commands are commands for all times – holy kisses and head coverings included), where there is room for grace and freedom and third what the Bible teaches about what to do when other Christians cross over those boundary markers. People have obsessed over the first…making the Bible speak on every conceivable matter through twisting the scriptures. The Bible doesn’t speak on everything, let’s get over it and move on to what it does speak about!
Clear teachings & making excuses - The problem we have faced is that people take the first, what the Bible clearly teaches, and twist scripture to say the Bible clearly teaches on everything even when it doesn’t…that even silence itself is a teaching on the matter that it is silent on…always to the restrictive (except where they have personally made exception that fits their tradition). The Bible is also silent on many things that these same people practice but they have no problem with that because those adjustments/audibles are “necessary”. For instance, they will say the church building is necessary because a house can’t hold 500 people. Well, yes…but if you took your view all the way you would be meeting in homes because it would be a sin not to do what the early church did (by their standard). Guess what, if you met in homes you wouldn’t need a building. Then that would also fix the whole necessary thing that the Lord’s supper has been scaled down from a meal to a tiny representation of its former self because we have to serve 500 people and we can’t do that with a whole meal! Well, yes you can if you took your view the whole way and met in homes. The whole “we do things the Bible is silent on” because it is necessary is a silly argument. They say we can have song books even though scripture is silent on that because song books are necessary to carry out worship together. Song books are not necessary for worship. There isn’t some existential/ontological black hole that is filled in our world by adding a song books that then makes singing possible. In other words, if you didn’t have song books it is still possible for people to sing. But that is the argument people will make. The Bible doesn’t clearly teach on everything. Let’s accept that and move on.
Where there is room for grace and freedom – We are not saved by our own righteousness. We are saved by grace. That means there is room to get things wrong and not be sent to hell because we had the wrong view on things, especially things that aren’t discussed in scripture. God hasn’t chosen to share his view on every single issue, instead he gives us the principles we need in scripture to make some audibles. So let us have the same grace toward others who are calling audibles on the silent and negotiable matters just as God has given us.
What to do when other Christians cross the boundary markers - Sin does not make us un-Christian. It makes us human. Sin does not instantly disqualify us from being God’s child or God’s people and yet for some, the moment anyone or any church has crossed certain lines they are out. Unrepentant, rebellion and wanton sinfulness in the face of Christ-like correction (Matt 18) can certainly warrant the church disfellowshipping people as Paul and Jesus both recommended. But not every mistake in doctrine is on that level and not every sin is to be treated with the last step in Matthew 18 first rather than doing what Jesus said and going to that person and talking with them about it. I can say that with confidence because that is how Paul treated the churches…he didn’t give them all the boot the moment they messed up (see the last post) and neither should we.
It is amazing to me that people will deal with sin of being “unscriptural” in the lives of others in unscriptural ways. Have we not learned anything from the Lord? If a Christian willfully and repeatedly is in sin and has been repeatedly approached and has decided they won’t live in line with the teaching of scripture, there is room to disfellowship people. That is not a quick and easy thing to be eager to do. It is sorrowful, painful and awful…not to be done with glee but there are times when that will be necessary and I am afraid people are trying to do this to others without following the Biblical protocol on this as we find in Matthew 18 and in Paul’s letters.
What Makes a church not a church of Christ?
Christ removes the candlestick, not us. In Revelation 2:5 Jesus warns the church in Ephesus saying, “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” At the end of the day this is His call, not ours. We are called to repent when we realize we are wrong. Period. We take that seriously if we take Christ seriously. Churches should take that seriously if we believe we have been out of line in a particular area. We can warn those we feel are in danger of this and try to teach from the scriptures why we think that is…but always with a heart full of love and humility, without double standards and practiced in line with what we are clearly taught in the scriptures regarding how to approach those situations.