"My wife and I have been meeting with brethren at the Church of Christ for several years. I have always been willing to take an active part in the services and to share ideas from my studies with those in our Bible classes. In the last couple of years, I have noticed that when I raised questions concerning "Church of Christ" beliefs and practices that the teacher (usually the preacher) and the elders got very nervous, and even showed flare-ups of temper. It was as if you were not supposed to question these things. The elders came to us and advised us not to raise questions for they might shake the faith of some in the audience. We asked if we could study some things with them, and they agreed to, but when they came to our house it ended up not being a study but an ultimatum of how we must remain silent and not cause trouble in the church. We can't imagine how seeking answers to questions will 'cause trouble in the church.'
"We have stayed at this congregation in the hopes that we could have some good affect on our brethren... Recently, we were told that we 'didn't fit in,' and 'would you please leave this church?'
"We want to please our Lord. What should we do?" - Virginia
Many experiences like this, with some variations, have been shared with me over the years. It saddens my heart to think that those professing to be God's people have come to the place where they will not tolerate questions or statements that are considered to be outside the party line. What they really mean is that it doesn't fit "our CREED," but they won't own up to that and call it what it is.
Why are they so paranoid? Are they afraid to enter into noble discussion and put their beliefs to the test for fear of finding out that they have been WRONG in their religious practices all these years? What has happened to that idea which was expressed to me years ago by members of the Church of Christ, when I was a Catholic searching for Christ, that if you have a love for truth, if you are confident, you will be ready to discuss any Bible topic with anyone at anytime? And, you do it without losing your temper; you do it in a spirit of tolerance, a spirit of love, longsuffering and kindness!
What we see in your experience is so similar to multiplied cases across our country. Thru is not an isolated abuse of power leveled at one couple. It is the consequence of a system that is wrong from its basic assumption, the product of a teaching and practice which I call the DOCTRINE OF THE LOCAL, CHURCH! When you force the scriptures to teach that disciples in a local area (i.e., a city), under command of God, MUST CONSTITUTE THEMSELVES INTO A FUNCTIONAL ORGANIZATION, A UNIT OR ENTITY; and then you INSTITUTIONALIZE this "thing" created, adding the dimension that one must be a member of this "thing" in order to be right with God, you set yourself up for this kind of a problem, or worse.
It is being taught by many that God commanded that this "local church" be duly constituted and organized with "bishops and deacons." Usually, Phillippians 1:1 is cited, "...to all the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons..." Read this verse carefully. Do you read anything about a "functional organization?" Does it necessarily follow that there had to be a "duly constituted functional organization" in Philippi? Paul wrote this letter to "the saints...WITH the bishops and deacons" in Philippi. These saints were in this city with those who were shepherding and ministering in a special way. That is all the verse says! IT IN NO WAY IMPLIES THAT THESE SAINTS WERE "FORMED" INTO SOME KIND OF ORGANIZED FUNCTIONAL UNIT! Those who believe in the "local church" doctrine must assume their theory, then read it into the text. This is called "proof-texting."
Do you know where in God's word He commanded that disciples "constitute themselves" into this "thing" called the "local church," with "elders" or "bishops" acting as a "Board of Directors" of a corporation? Where is the passage that so indicates? THERE IS NONE! Today, men assume they have a Divine right (authority) to "rule" in the lives of all the saints. THEY DO NOT! They are to "feed (teach) the flock," "watch out" for their souls," and in every way be "examples to the flock,” but they are warned not to be as "lords" over them (1 Pet. 5:2-3).
The "local church" of this doctrine is INSTITUTIONALIZED. The most basic element in something institutionalized is THE CONTROL OF THE LIVES OF ITS MEMBERS! Did you get that? Think about it with me. Any organization, such as a school, a hospital, a court of law, yes, even a church, is INSTITUTIONALIZED when it is set up to control people and put them into a subordinate role. All those mentioned above are institutions. One characteristic they all have in common is that they have an organized POWER STRUCTURE designed to control the behavior of its people. The "local church" has its authoritarian "elders," who function as that "power structure." Sometimes, it includes the professional preacher, hired to fill their job description and to do their bidding. They lay down rules, even the command to be silent, and exercise complete control. Diatrophes of 3 John did not behave any differently!
That is one of the reasons they insist that "membership be placed" and "submission to the elders" be acknowledged· This leads to the kind of treatment you received at the "local church" in Virginia In this context, elders and preachers do get "nervous" when one asks too many questions, challenging the "status quo," or makes statements that are not of the "party line." They fear that they may "lose control" over you, as well as others you may "contaminate·" Remember, "they must protect the flock," who are vital to the existence and success of the "local church·"
Now, what should you do? You could "cave in" to the demands of those men, take your seat in their class and assembly and never again question what the teacher may say. I know some who are doing this right now. I couldn't do it. Somehow it smacks of compromising and/or violating one's conscience. But, it is the easy way out. You don't have to stand for anything, engage in confrontation, or in any way, make any difference in effecting change for the better. You just "go to church" with the rest of them and "punch the time clock, in and out," and operate under the presumption that God is well pleased! However, since they have informed you that you don't "fit in," and they want you to leave, it seems to me that the hardest part of the decision has been made for you - I certainly would leave!
"Then, what should we do," you ask? Without sounding unkind let me make the observation that you raise this question because you are the product of the "Institutional Church·" Week after week, month after month, year after year we "attend" one of these "local churches," where everything is planned and executed for us. The songs are selected and we sing, the prayers are uttered and we pray, sermons are preached and we listen (or, half listen); all we have to do is show up, toe the line, and finance the proceedings! We do this for years: habitually, it is the same ceremonious ritual that has been going on for generation after generation· Is it any wonder that if something happens to take the "local church" out of our lives, we ask, "WHAT SHOULD WE DO?" We are lost! We do not know what to do! We think that we have to GO SOMEWHERE to any one of these OFFICIAL WORSHIP STATIONS; something supposedly designated by God; something called the "local church." God did not originate them, man did!
Ponder this: What do you suppose the Ethiopian eunuch did upon returning home as a new Christian? I think it is safe to assume that there were no other Christians to meet with him in his home town. I am certain there were no institutional “local churches” in which to "place membership." This is a concept right out of man's imagination. It did not come from God!
Now think of it. Here was a man that was baptized into Jesus Christ and, according to Paul's testimony concerning other Christians, he was "washed...sanctified...justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11); he was "baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:13); and, he was "in him" and "made full" (Col. 2:9-10). Everything this eunuch needed in order to enjoy salvation was provided by God in Christ, and HE HAD IT WHEN HE CAME UP OUT OF THE WATER. He was a member of the body of Christ, but he was not joined to a "local church·" He was not TOLD to join a "local church" In fact, there was no "local church" to join. He was not told to "start one." Furthermore, his righteousness did not depend on him "belonging'' to any one of them, if they had existed!
Again, we ask the question: upon returning home, what would the eunuch have done in order to be well pleasing to God? Of course, the Bible doesn't tell us what the eunuch did, but it does tell us enough about what Christians did so we can draw some conclusions· No doubt, he shared his newly found faith in Jesus Christ with anyone who would listen to him. I am confident that he baptized anyone who expressed that faith and repented. Surely, he continued to meet periodically with any converts in order to establish them in the faith· This would include a lot of praying, singing, teaching, and observing the Lord's Supper, just as those first Christians did in Jerusalem: "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers...And day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people" (Acts 2:42, 46, 47)·
The eunuch and those converts to Christ would not have been obligated to "form themselves into" a "local church" and hang out a shingle with a denominational name on it in order to do any of those things mentioned above, would they? Even if he "pastored" them over a long period of time, he wouldn't need an institutional church set-up in order to teach them to be Christ-like and to serve God, would he? I am certain he would not have insisted on a "church-building" in which to carry out all activities because those kinds of buildings did not appear in history until the early fourth century and were part of the great apostasy. Christians did not use them. They met in houses. That is where they sang, prayed, fellowshipped, broke bread, celebrated the Lord's Supper, and otherwise, edified one another.
You can do that too! Why not? I know several Christians who are doing just that, today. They are no longer affiliated with one of those man-made inventions called a "local church." They have severed their relationship with those who insist on calling themselves exclusively by a group name, such as “Church of Christ,” "Christian Church," "Baptist Church," etc. They are now content to be called "Christians" and to be just "Christians" only· The exclusive use of group names are divisive and reflect carnal mindedness (1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:1-3). Jesus prayed that his disciples would be ONE, that is, completely unified in Him and the Father (John 17:20-23).
What a beautiful thought that is: all Christians coming out from among those who are wed to their idol, the "local church" denominated, and presenting themselves a united front against the evil one who would love to enslave the whole world. Jesus prayed to the Father that we be one "that the world may believe that thou didst send me."
What I am suggesting to you is not as easy as simply sitting in a pew week after week. It is hard work to convert the lost, minister to the poor, and encourage the disciples. It is not always convenient to turn your house into a meeting place for the saints, as was done by Priscilla, Aquila, Stephanas and others. But, God wants a people "zealous of good works" (Titus 2:14) and who are "always abounding in the work of the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58), not fossilizing in some "local church" pew.
May you have the courage and the determination to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil· 2:14).