I suspect we have all missed a few "boats" in life; which is fine since many of them were not going anywhere anyway. But, some opportunities are too good to let go by. One in particular comes to mind. We who are of "church of Christ" background and persuasion have today an extraordinary opportunity to teach our religious neighbors. Most people about us are lost in a world of sin. Some of them could be reached if only we cared enough to reach out to them with the Savior. Others are "lost" in a wilderness of Churches where they are pretty much bewildered by it all. These are the ones I have in mind at the moment. Evidently they have some interest in their relationship with God, as evidenced by their Sunday-go-to-meeting habits. Yet if "our" understanding of the Scriptures is anything like correct, these people are largely groping around in the dark. They desperately need to be instructed in the way of God more perfectly; and we are in a position to do this. On occasion when some sincere person forces us into a corner, we will reluctantly undertake the task. When we do, too often the "boat" goes by and we miss it. Let me try to explain.
What y happens is this. The subject of religion comes up with our denominational friends and we set out to "teach them the truth." Our first battle plan is usually to attack some particular doctrine they erroneously hold, perhaps one of the five points of Calvinism like "once saved, always saved." If we bone up on the Bible we can certainly beat the britches off this doctrine, leaving it naked in front of the truth. Or better yet, we will attack one of their practices, preferably baptism. With the kind of ammunition available on this subject we can easily knock the who, what and why of their denominational baptism right out of the water. All this is well and good, for surely our religious friends need a clearer understanding of important doctrines and practices like these. But these are only skirmishes compared to the BIG battle. For sooner or later the discussion is certain to arrive at the "Church" door where it will end up in a "Church fight." The critical question always has to do with "Church." While other issues may or may not be worked out, the question of "Church" somehow HAS to be settled. Ultimately this is what the fuss is all about. Here is where the decisive battle is fought. The issue comes down to "whose Church" is best, or "which Church" is right. I believe here is where we miss our chance.
Too often what we do at this point is allow our religious friends to dictate, not the terms of peace but the "terms" of the war. I mean this literally. The whole discussion comes down to "the Church" and we end up arguing the entire question ON THEIR TERMS; that is to say, we fall into the trap of using their terminology exactly as they do. To be specific, we use the biggest word in their dictionary, Church, precisely in the same way they use it. We permit them to misuse the word by misusing it right along with them. Apparently we do this without ever realizing it. The odd thing is, we would never permit this to happen with, say, a big word like "baptism." Should one of our religious friends refer to the sprinkling of his children as "baptism" we would quickly and quietly correct him. We would kindly explain that the word baptize, though it might refer to sprinkling or pouring in our modern world, did not mean this in the day when Jesus and the apostles used the word. We would read him the Greek definition of baptizo as given by Greek authorities. We would follow this up by giving pertinent illustrations of how baptism is used in the New Testament, how it involves much water, a going down into the water, a coming up out of the water, how it is pictured as a burial, a planting, etc. Then we would insist on henceforth using the word correctly, as it was used in New Testament times.
When it comes to the word "ekklesia," however, we insist on no such thing. To the contrary, we let our religious neighbors define this word for us. Why do we do this? We COULD explain to them that, regardless of how the word is used today, the original word referred to PEOPLE. We could take them to the Greek dictionary and show them that the word meant the "called out" ones and thus referred to a gathering or group of people. We could give them New Testament illustrations of how an "ekklesia" can be "gathered together" (Acts 14:27) or can be "scattered" abroad (Acts 8:1), just as a group of people might be. Yet for some reason we seldom do any of this. Instead, we let our religious friends continue to use the word like THEY wish to use it.
When our friends speak of their "Church" they are not referring to God's "called out" people. No indeed. In fact, they are not speaking of people of any description. They are thinking of a denominated religious organization to which they and others "belong." When in the course of the argument they say, "Well I think one Church is as good as another;" or perhaps, "I think my Church is as good as your Church;' they are not talking about people in either instance. They are not saying they think Methodist people are "just as good" as Baptist people (though they think this also). They are saying that they think the religious organization that Methodist people support is no worse than the religious organization that Baptist people support. They are not comparing people, but organizations. Because to them this is what the word "Church" denotes. Now I am not letting anyone's cat out of the bag here. We all KNOW that in contemporary conversation religious people consistently use the word "Church" in a denominational sense, applying it to the institutional system of which they are part. This is bad because it creates confusion. What makes it worse is that we follow their suit in this regard. Do we do this?
Let's listen to ourselves for a change, and THINK! We preach sermons and write tracts on the great and sensitive subject of "Church." The titles themselves give us away. Here are a few:
What,, may I ask, are we talking about in such titles? Gods called out" people? Of course not. Unless I misunderstand my guess, we are referring to a religious institution that we envision, one that we are encouraging everyone to look for, locate, investigate and get "in" so they might be taken to heaven.
If such titles suggest this conclusion, the content of our "Church" discourses leaves no doubt. When "the Church" is the topic of the lesson, what do we invariably end up doing? Correct me if I am wrong. What we usually end up doing is comparing our "Church" with their "Church" or vice versa. We set out to show that their Church (their religious institution) is the wrong one, but our Church (our religious institution) is the right one. How so? Simply because our Institution has the right name, while their Institution has the wrong name; our Institution has the right terms of membership, theirs has the wrong terms; our Institution provides the five scriptural acts of worship, theirs does not; our Institution has the correct organizational form (elders and deacons), theirs does not. As you can see, all this is a comparison of Institutions, not of people or personal faith. The battle is entirely on an institutional level. Thus we spend endless energy trying to convince our religious friends that one denominated organization is better than another. In the end, our aim seems to be to prove that the Church of Christ (I hesitate to inquire as to which variety of "Church of Christ" since there are so many now) is an institutional entity that is 100% scriptural in name, doctrine and practice. This sounds wonderful, except it says nothing about Jesus, the Son of God, or our personal faith in him.
In any event what we have done, without realizing it, is to accomodate the Biblical concept of the "ekklesia" to the denominational "Church" concept of our religious friends. In the process we have conceded to them that we have the same type of denominated "thing" that they have. They have an Institution; we have an Institution. They have denominated theirs; we have denominated ours. They call their organization a Church; we call our organization a Church. The only difference is, we think ours is better than theirs because it has a more scriptural set of institutional earmarks.
I believe there is a better approach to this whole "Church" mess, a truly undenominational approach that would be clear and appealing IF it could be put in the proper light. Before us is a grand opportunity to offer our religious friends an entirely different concept of serving the Lord; not one borrowed from the Catholic-Protestant world of institutional "Churches," but one taken from the undenominational, non-Church world of the New Testament. Back then there was no denominated institutional Church of any kind; there was only a people committed to Christ, and drawn together on this account. Someway, somehow, we must get this across to our friends. We must make them realize that in the sense in which they use the word, we simply have no "Church" to offer them. Nor does the New Testament. Surely we can make them see this. By showing them the original meaning of"ekklesia" by showing them how the word is actually used in the Scriptures, we can clearly point out to them that the "ekklesia" of the Bible is not some kind of non-human, holy institutional entity, but is a group of real live human beings who have come to Jesus Christ. Therefore the "ekklesia" of the Scriptures is really a church (if they insist on using the word) which is not a Church! Not in the modern sense of the word, anyway. We must no longer allow our friends to think that we are merely trying to get them to switch organizations, to transfer their allegiance from one institutional Church to another. This would not help them very much. Presumably and hopefully, what we are trying to get them to do is switch their allegiance from every denominated institution to Jesus Christ the Lord. We want them to be undenominational Christians, period.
To press this point home, perhaps we could say to our good neighbor something like this: "Friend, let us not argue over Churches. For I am not suggesting that you change from your Church to mine. Actually I have no Church for you to change to. As I see it, if you wish to follow the Lord there is no reason for you to make a Church decision at all. Think about this situation. Suppose a person today who has never heard about your denomination, or any other Church for that matter, were to hear the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose he believes it, and by faith in Christ and obedience to his gospel comes out of sin to the Savior. What is this person? Is he not a Christian? And is he not also in that great assembly of souls who have gathered around the Lord? Therefore is he not part of the ekklesia of Jesus Christ? But bear in mind, friend, that this person knows nothing of modern Churches. He has made only one decision: a Christ-decision. Yet as a result he is included in the number of the redeemed; he is an added member of the Lord's assembly, the Lord's ekklesia, the Lord's church, if you will. Is this enough? Really, isn't this the only church affiliation any person will ever need in order to go to heaven?"
Many people in the religious community are knowledgeable enough in the Scriptures to understand this line of reasoning. Eventually the truth will dawn on them thusly: "Oh, I see now what you are talking about. You are talking about the TRUE church that consists of all God's called out people whoever and wherever they are. You are talking about the REAL, sure 'nuff church that one day will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air to be with Him forever. Of course I believe that this church exists on earth today. Rather than any particular denomination, it is the church that Jesus will ultimately lead to heaven."
"In some ways, you see, our friends in the religious world are wiser than we are. They KNOW that the denominated Church of their choice is not identical to the "ekklesia" of the Bible; or conversely, they KNOW that the real "ekklesia" cannot be equated to their institutional Church, or ANY institutional Church. Therefore, there is no need to teach them this great lesson. They already know it. Our task is simply to remind them of what they already know, and to insist that they quit calling their institution "the Church" when they know good and well it is NOT "the ekklesia." Our task is to show them the folly of making their faith Church-oriented rather than Christ-oriented. Our task is to show them the error of making a denominational institution the object of devotion and the subject of service. Our task is to show them that to build their faith and life around an institutional Church, to serve their Church, to support their Church, to obey their Church, to give love and allegiance to their Church, is to rob Jesus of his rightful place as the centerpiece of true Christianity. Sadly, more often than not, instead of doing this we have merely sunk to their level. We have contented ourselves with trying to get them to accept only a slightly different version of something they already have -- an institutional entity erroneously called "the Church."
We have, I fear, missed the mark. What we have done is preach "the church of Christ" as though it were nothing more than a Church among Churches, somewhat or perhaps significantly different from other Churches, but of exactly the same institutional NATURE as all the rest. We have preached this "Church" more diligently than we have preached Christ. As a result we have succeeded in converting many good people, not to Christ, but to "the Church of Christ." Consequently, these people think they are going to heaven primarily because they "belong to the right Church." To their way of thinking they have found the "right boat" and have gotten into it. Such a concept suggests that "denominational" Church people may have influenced the thinking of us "undenominational" Christians more than we have influenced theirs. Again I say, we have missed the mark. And the mark is Jesus Christ! Unless men and women are converted TO Christ, and therefore truly become the ekklesia which is OF Christ, it is all for naught. Again I say we have missed the mark; and because we have missed the mark, many of those we attempt to teach probably miss the point; and in the end we may all end up "missing the boat" in the worst kind of way.