I’m not who I thought I was, and neither is the Church.
I still struggle with an appropriate response to God’s love (nothing I can come up with is enough), and I’m realizing that I have expended much effort on rule-following even when I thought I wasn’t.
Some time ago our elders held a series of classes on church history and passed out a book called “Distant Voices” by C. Leonard Allen. (Used copies at Amazon for a dollar – what have you got to lose?) I’m no authority on the Stone-Campbell restoration movement, but reading this book has really challenged who I thought the Church was and is. I thought that even though the Church of Christ doesn’t have a central governing body, we all pretty much agreed on the same central issues and that Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone came together to reform and restore the Church into the pattern of the New Testament Church.
Turns out that not only was that not their intent, they didn’t even agree on some of the basic principles I thought we all agreed on. They did not agree on baptism as a measure of fellowship (ch 6, p.39), and they had significant differences of opinion on “the dynamics of conversion, the Spirit’s work, and the Trinity. They differed on the nature of Christ’s atoning death, fellowship with the unimmersed, and the Christian’s relationship to government. And they differed over the nature and demands of discipleship, the possibility of present-day miracles, the earthly reign of Christ, and other doctrinal matters.” (pp. 173-4)
I also thought that the Church of Christ has existed since Jesus died on the cross. While His Church has existed since then, what we know today as the Church of Christ doesn’t look much like the Church did in the first century. And that’s okay.
In a recent post titled “Lessons from the Churches of Christ,” Adam Wood lamented some of the changes in our musical tradition that he thought were degrading the quality of our worship. I find it curious that as a Catholic, he’d be worried about the quality of music in a Church of Christ worship service that he never participates in. But, aside from his thoughts on our musical traditions, he did make what I think are some very astute observations about us (or maybe astute observations about human nature), observations that further challenge my thoughts on my identity as a Christian.
The heart of the Church of Christ’s congregational orientation – a theology of community derived from the Acts of the Apostles – has been reduced in common practice to a mere legalism: “No musical instruments.” Once a theological proposition has been reduced to a legalism, there are two inevitable consequences: circumnavigation and abandonment. Circumnavigation happens when the question becomes, “How can we do whatever we wanted to do anyway, without ‘technically’ breaking the rules?” Abandonment happens when the pretense of technicality is dropped and the rule is simply ignored or removed.
There are two typical ways of reacting to this seemingly inevitable evolution from law to legalism to disregard. Most people go along with whatever trend is currently in vogue, whether actively supporting the change or simply allowing it to happen without comment or resistance. A small minority oppose the change, but usually for spurious reasons having to do with legalism and habit.
Philistines and Pharisees. Progressives and Prudes.
Adam cites some examples of how we have disregarded and abandoned the rules, but all his examples are music related. There are others. We have rules about how to conduct a worship service, but we don’t spend a lot of time evangelizing outside of the church building. We have rules about how and when to hold a weekly communion service, but we don’t actively go house-to-house daily breaking bread with our brothers and sisters. I have seen people show up at worship, and leave immediately after taking communion so they can make it to another engagement – as if taking communion were a “ticket punch” for showing that you worshiped this week. I know we don’t pick-and-choose which “rules” to follow and which ones to ignore, but I also know we, as humans, simply cannot get it all right all the time.
Even among the most conservative Churches of Christ who all agree on the role of baptism, a cappella music, regular weekly communion services, and women’s roles, there are differences of opinion on what’s allowable and what isn’t (one cup or multiple cups for communion; break the bread before the prayer or after?; paid preachers or not?; institutional support (orphanages, universities, etc.), and so on).
We like rules. They make it clear to us what is allowable and what isn’t. Who is right and who is wrong. But, it’s just not possible for us to “follow the rules.” Hebrews reminds us that the entire experience of the Israelites made it clear that we cannot.
I know there are some of my friends and family who think I’ve drifted away from the old paths, slipped away from holding to the Truth, and begun to engage in popularism. But I have begun to recognize that as much as like to be a rule follower, it’s just not possible for me to have all the answers, to know what is absolutely right and what isn’t. But I can pursue a personal relationship with God, read his Word daily, talk to Him regularly, and let Him show me His Way.
What I’ve come to understand is this:
- God is the creator
- Jesus is the Son of God
- Jesus is The Way, The Truth, and The Life (there is no other path to God)
- Adult baptism by immersion is essential
- Regular meeting with the Saints and regular Bible reading is essential to your relationship with Christ.
Everything else is open for discussion.