Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. -- Apostle Paul
There is a stench in the air, and it is difficult to determine its source. It seems to be everywhere. It smells of rotting flesh; the flies are myriad. Off in the distance I hear a cry for help, and as I approach closer, topping a small hill, I clutch my mouth in order to stifle a nauseous stomach brought on by the horrible landscape unfolding before my eyes. Everywhere I look I see the bodies of slain men and women in various stages of torture, mutilation, and carnage. I hear the cry once more, and as I look in that direction, I am able to distinguish amidst the many bodies, and uplifted hand. I hurry to the side of the aged gentleman, able only to discern his age by the hoary beard which now has become mingled with his own dried blood. "Ancient one," I blurt out, "What has happened here? Who did this to you?," not considering the more immediate needs of' his wounds. But before he is able to respond he's gone. As I lay his hoary head down as gently as I raised it, my eyes fill with tears and my body is torn betwixt the two, not knowing whether to mourn the dead, or be nauseated by the brutality of it all.
Who is capable of such carnage? Without doubt, Mercy has fled and Peace is in exile; who is there left to plead the cause of the widow and orphan? Such carnage was unknown even among the Assyrian Monarchs, especially Asshurnazirpal, who is reputed to have "...strewn their corpses upon the mountains like leaves, and ...a pyramid at the gate of the city was covered with their skins;...some were walled up in the masonry, others were crucified and exposed on stakes along side of the pyramid...We must tax our wits to imagine more refinement of torture or methods of execution."(1) Yet, judging from the carnage at my feet, someone has done him one better. Upon further examination of the scene one thing becomes obvious: the total absence of any weapons. How were they slain? There are no swords or axes fallen or left behind, and why were they slain?
Religious wars and persecutions are not of recent vintage inasmuch as men of faith have witnessed such scenes as depicted above ever since the day that Cain rose up and slew his brother Abel. The weapons wielded with such skill in the aforementioned carnage are those of Hatred, Bigotry, Malice, Envy, Faction and all the Fratricidal weapons forged in the fires of Hell and hammered upon the anvils of Death and Destruction. As God demanded of Cain, so He does also of us: "Where is thy brother?" As was Abel our righteous brother, so there are many today who lay slain in the field, slain I say, by the hands of their own brethren. "Am I my brother's keeper?" is not a rhetorical question, but one which demands an answer; and that answer comes like a breath of fresh air in a stagnant place in the Person of One Who demands no less of His disciples than He does of Himself: "Love one another EVEN AS I have loved you." But alas, it isn't so. We find it extremely difficult to discover anything of value in our brother to recommend him to us, even though he has been God-forgiven and Spirit-filled. How transparent is our hypocrisy when we pray, "Our Father which art in heaven," and yet vilify a member of the brotherhood, -- to profess to "Him which begat," and show hatred to "him that is begotten of Him." Is it possible that you and I, my dear brother, are "Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles," were somehow "sanitized" into the Church, and as a result, God's face shines upon us and not upon our brother who stand praying, "God be merciful to me a sinner?" If so, then for us Christ did not die nor in us He does not live. Be aware, therefore, my brother, that we have both come before the same God to ask and receive forgiveness, and with the Apostle Peter I also say, "...not my feet only, but also my hands and my head."
Love said that by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. But wherever Love wanes, Carnage reigns, and with this Tyrant enthroned in our heart:
...Justice is driven back
and Righteousness stands at a
Truth has stumbled in the streets,
Honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found,
and whoever shuns evil becomes
The Lord looked and was
that there was no justice (Isa. 59:14,15).
As I write these very words the lines of battle are being drawn; men who are "reputed to be pillars" are sharpening their pens as well as their tongues on the stone of bitter zeal. This seems to be the norm today; some aboriginal impulse carried over from that world from which "we were delivered." With their ordination papers in one hand and their Bibles clutched in the other, preachers strike out into the community of saints with the rabid zeal of a (although ignorant) Saul of Tarsus, "breathing threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord," and if any be found who do not measure up, plumb and square, with their brand of Orthodoxy, bring them bound hand and foot to Jerusalem or Ft. Worth-Dallas or wherever the Seat of Orthodoxy resides these days. Whenever these intellectual titans enter the city in triumph, with their captives in tow, to receive the accolades of approval, all heaven mourns; for this is not the picture of the shepherd leaving the ninety and nine and seeking and finding the little tender lamb that was lost, and now is returned to the Chief Shepherd and Overseer of his soul.
My brethren, these things ought not to be; but, may God help us, they are. If there is a way to threaten and intimidate; to cripple or maim; to vilify and ridicule; to bite and devour one another, Lord forgive us, we are capable of doing it. And if that is not enough, if we exhaust all the refinements at hand, we go frothing at the mouth to invent new ones. No mountain is too high, nor is any road too long in order to seek out and uproot every seed of doctrine which does not bear the image of our particular brand of truth. Does the truth proceed from Jerusalem? Or Anticoch? Is Peter our Apostle or Paul? May God help us, have we not learned anything from the past? We are men filled with pride, unable to admit that, just maybe, we could be wrong. We, being Jews, will not accept our Gentile brother the way he is, warts and all, but insist that the "poor sinner" be taken "without the gate" and circumcised.
Truth is of little interest to those who hold it in unrighteousness; and if this fruit of unrighteousness is sown in discord by those who make war, there will never be an end to war and fighting among us. Truth, as well as ourselves, deserves better than this. James tells us that truth should reside in the hands of teachers whose hearts are first pure; peacemakers who sow the truth in a peaceful manner, expecting a harvest of righteousness. Jesus instructed His disciples that the first words spoken upon entering a house were "Peace be unto this house," and as one did so, the palms of one's hands were extended towards the household thus signifying that as they were empty of any weapon, so the heart was void of any guile. At this point, a voice from the past deserves another hearing:
"Even if it is for truth that you bitterly contend, nevertheless, without the meekness of wisdom, your testimony for the truth which you intelligently hold is only a lie, and in the evil spirit which prompts you will rather damage the truth than further its obedience. For your mind, walk, and deportment, your work in word, contradicts the substance of the word you preach: you contend while you insist upon love, you act the hypocrite even while teaching the truth - and can that do otherwise than create offence and harm." (2)
In plain words Stier is saying that you hold the truth in your head, but the wisdom that is "earthly, sensual, and devilish" you hold in your heart; thus you lie against the truth. If when, and only then, we stop carrying the Apostle's teaching in the phylacteries of our minds, and rather let it become written upon our hearts by the Spirit of the Living God, then there may be some hope for us after all. If not, then these wars and rumors of war will continue among us. Brethren, let's lay aside all exalting of ourselves or our party-spirit, and strive to get our hearts in line with our head and both in tune with the truth and leave the exalting to the Lord.
We need to stop playing games, such as, running up our sectarian flags, playing church, and reckoning ones shibboleth for righteousness. They are nothing short of the inquisitorial tactics of an enforced unity. Unity on this basis is neither spiritual, Biblical, or eternal. For it is founded upon a set of codified articles of faith to which all must bow the knee with their signature of assent, rather than placing their faith or trust in a Living Person, Jesus Christ. The object of faith is not Doctrine, but Christ Jesus. The motivation to serve in the former is Fear, in the latter, Love.
In view of the present situation, nothing would make Satan any happier than to have brethren at one another's throats; the situation is critical. It has progressed beyond the point of who is right or wrong. For to be exegetically correct in your argumentative position on the one hand, and morally destitute in your heart in the execution of your defense on the other, destroys not only the credibility of your position, but your soul as well. In other words, your soul is more important than the correctness of your position. Discuss the issues? By all means do so, in the press, in debates, wherever and whenever you choose, but let all hatred, jealousy, and faction be laid aside as becometh saints, and then our offering will ascend towards heaven as an "odor of sweet smell."
As I now sit on the banks of the "river Chebar," I notice that many of my brethren are settling in quite comfortable in their exile. It's now my turn to remind them that this world is not their home. As Peter declares, we "reside as aliens, scattered..." throughout the world. But I witness millions of dollars spent each year on church buildings along with all the denominational accouterments of sports, fun and games. When methinks, all that is needed is a sheep-shed and some honest men who are capable of growing grass. All of this expenditure, in honor of a Galilean peasant who said foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but He had no place of His own to lay His head, is ludicrous. Shepherds warmed by the wool and sated by the flesh of the flock; preachers (shepherds) are schooled in head-knowledge, but too many are destitute of the "wisdom from above which is first pure, then peaceable, etc..." This is not something you learn in school but must become a part of the very fiber and sinew of the heart. It is for this reason (I say this not in order to discourage young preachers)that the work of shepherding the flock of God has always fallen upon the older, more mature (elder, senior) individuals. This is not for young, even the graduated, ordained young.
With all the vast amount of real estate owned and operated by the churches of Christ, as well as the jobs and salaries generated by such wealth, no small wonder men struggle to protect and defend it. Is this one more reason "whence come wars and fightings among us" in view of the present issue of concepts? The issues of the nature of the church, the eldership, human organization, versus divine organization are, in many respects, conceptual issues, but they go farther than that. The problem with brethren establishing human organizations is the same if they turn the ecclesia into a structured organization, namely, they become Power Structures which exercise authority over the individual and his faith. We need neither Popes nor religious organizations "lording it over the flocks." The seeds sown in the 50's and 60's on human institutions have produced the offspring of the present one. Out of the fertile soil of our imaginations we have created this "divine institution" called the local church organization in order to prove that human institutions are unscriptural. So now we are having to deal with this "divine institution."
It is not easy to have someone come along and question one's position, and with some it is nigh unto impossible to sit idly by while someone pokes holes in one's armour without getting downright upset. The focus of this brief article has not been on the issues at hand, but on our attitudes and motives toward one another in discussing them. For reasons already stated above, if this is not given the attention it deserves, then the "issues" no more deserve our attention, time, and sacrifice than the eternal issues of dum teddle and teddle dum.
(1) Historians History of the World, Vol. 1-2, pp.383, 384
(2) Rudolf Stier, The Epistle of James, pp. 384-385