The Church As The Route To Heaven

Cecil Hook

 

esus reconciled us to God so that each disciple is his own priest, consecrated to God in continuous service. "There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus"(1 Tim. 2:5). "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). When we are in Christ, there is no longer a distance to be bridged through an intervening agency.

It is presumptuous for any man or group of men to claim to stand between God and man. To do so is to arrogate the position and function of a mediator. Yet such mediatory functions have been developed and claimed by men.

In the hierarchical system developed in the medieval church, the pope came to be looked upon as the "vicar of Christ," that is, one serving as a substitute for Christ on earth. Those of lesser rank in the structure of the hierarchy, including the priests, were said to be "other Christs." This official and sacerdotal class filled the role of mediators to reveal God's will to the people and to offer up their worship to God.

A sacramental system was developed through which the mediatory function was enforced. According to that system, all grace was dispensed through the sacraments, and only the clergy could perform the sacraments. So the priest came to stand between man and God, and the clergy expressed the authority of the church. The church/hierarchy could set restrictions, withhold privileges, and dispense blessings. The church became the route to heaven. If the clergy excommunicated a person, he was presumed to be cut off from God.

We in the Churches of Christ have inherited too much of that mediatory concept of the church. Since we have no organizational superstructure or ordained clergy, it would seem that such a concept would be impossible. But our free access to God is being hindered by a repressive system which we have developed. In more subtle ways the church has become our mediatory road to salvation and service. Let us consider several aspects of it here.

1. The Necessity of Church Membership. Since the Lord saves us and adds the saved to the church, it is easy to conclude that one must be in the church in order to be saved. By that reasoning, actually we have put a wrong emphasis on church membership. Being in Christ is the essential, for he is ()ur mediator to reconcile us to God; being in the church is the consequence. God is not in the church reconciling us to himself. The saved are not added to an organization or system, but the saved become the church. We do not become members of the church; we are it! It is the mediation of Jesus that saves us; so, the church does not serve any mediating purpose. It is not a matter of becoming members of the church in order to reach God and be saved.

2. Good Works Through the Church. Too many of us have been told that we must do our good works through the church (local congregation) so that God will get the glory.. We have been warned that individual works are not done in the name of the Lord (name of the church!) and that they glorify the person rather than God. Helping community organizations does not glorify God! Our contributions must be "laid at the elder's feet." Those elders assign and direct the exercise of our individual talents through the congregational program. The elders have the right to know how much one gives in order to determine if the person is covetous and deserving of withdrawal. (I once taught that! Horrors!) Home classes not sponsored by the elders are looked upon as clandestine. Programs of work or evangelism not overseen by the elders are considered to be in competition with the church, if not in rebellion to it. If members of a congregation participate in the Lord's Supper at home or at a family reunion, it is considered as questionable, if not sinful, by many.

All of these scruples and claims reveal the misguided belief that our works of service in sanctification are mediated through an organization.

3. Worship in Assembly. Although most everyone agrees that we can worship God anywhere at any time, there is still a prevailing conviction that everyone must "go to worship" where the only worship that really counts before God is presented by a corporate group. That gives the church a mediating function between the worshipper and God, and it reinforces the old misconception that our religion relates mostly to church buildings and "going to church."

4. Elder Authority. The development of bishop authority in the early centuries of Christianity resulted in the hierarchical system of a clergy through which disciples approached and served God. In recent years among our churches we are hearing that elders have authority over the individuals in the congregations and that they are accountable for their souls, thus standing between the individuals and God. When disciples "place membership," it is not uncommon to hear some such announcement as this made: "The Smith family wishes to be a part of this congregation and to serve under our elders."

Elders are being given authority to ordain scruples and standards and to withdraw from those who do not comply. This is being done in spite of the warning of Jesus: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you . . ." (Matt. 20:25f) In the Scriptures, elders are not given special prerogatives to withdraw fellowship for a congregation. Elders are being accepted as heads of local systems where they presume to dispense or withhold blessings by mediating or blocking the way to God. Some have been known to withdraw from disciples over the most trivial doctrinal issues and the pettiest of personal differences.

Elders must give account for souls in similar manner that parents are accountable for their children, but parents do not stand between their children and God. Both elders and parents should give pastoral care for those in their oversight in order to develop them rather than to mediate for them.

There has been much fear among our people about having an unscriptural congregational organization, or even an unqualified elder. That fear is based upon the conviction that we relate to God through an organization instead of an individual relationship of reconciliation with God.

5. Confession of Sins. James urges the sick to call the elders to the sick room that they might anoint them and pray for them. Lest there be any sin to impede the prayers, and for the spiritual health of the sick, James urges also that confession of sins be made.

We have developed the belief and practice that sins must be confessed publicly to the church. This has nothing to do with the sick. We have abandoned the practice of elders going to the sick to anoint them and to pray for them, but we have retained the practice of confessions of sins, making it a public confession. Public confession is commendable if it is to indicate repentance, to seek individual forgiveness of public sin, and to gain the strength and support of fellow disciples. But it has gained the place of a ritual of humiliation through which one gains God's forgiveness a going through the church in order to be acceptable to God. The prayers of the church become more a mediation than an intercession.

Jesus taught us to go directly to the ones we offend in order to make reconciliation with them, and as priests, we offer our own prayers to God in whom we remain reconciled. We do not depend upon an intervening agency.

6. Congregational Membership. Can one be saved and serve God acceptably without congregational membership? There is no mention of church membership in the Scriptures. The Lord does not add the saved to congregations (local groups) but he adds them to his universal congregation. We choose and join the local groups. However, some find it impossible or impractical to be a part of an assembly group. They are no less able to approach, worship, and serve God than those who are able to assemble regularly with a church.

 Disciples are urged to meet with other disciples. But for what purpose? We are to assemble with others for mutual edification rather than to insure that our worship will be acceptable. The congregation does not mediate so that worship in it is acceptable.

The purpose of this lesson is not to belittle the church or its meetings, but it is to emphasize our individual relationship with God. We are no longer alienated, needing an intervening agency. When we are in Christ, we are reconciled. There is no gap to bridge. Those who are reconciled are his universal church/congregation/assembly. We do not join the church to be reconciled to God by it, but we are added to that number because we are reconciled. We associate with other disciples individually and in "local congregations'' for mutual edification. As equals before God we serve him together, but the acceptable service of one person is not dependent upon another person or group of persons.