Several years ago in preparation to teach a class on "other beliefs" I interviewed a minister of thc local "United Church of Christ," which is a denomination not connected with restorationism. I don't know whether his views represent the official position of that group but what he told me illustrates the point of this article.
I asked for a basic digest of their views. In explaining it he said, "We are a product of the merger of four churches, all with differing doctrinal backgrounds. So we are quite flexible. We try to accommodate everyone by teaching them whatever they already believe. If someone comes to us who believes that sprinkling is baptism we teach them that sprinkling is baptism. But if someone comes to us believing that baptism is immersion then we teach them that baptism is immersion."
I asked him if he knew the meaning of the word "baptizo" in the Bible text. He replied, "O yes, I know that it means to immerse." I then asked, "Doesn't it bother you to tell someone that it means 'to sprinkle' when you know otherwise?" He replied, "No, it doesn't bother me because I do not see baptism as essential in the first place." To me that seemed a strange idea of the responsibilities of a teacher.
A desire to be tolerant is good. A willingness to be flexible in the interest of unity is an idea taught in the Bible (Romans 14; Eph. 4:1-3). But so is responsibility to truth (John 14:21-24). Division is often listed in scripture as a sin. The divisive person is said to be a subverted sinner to be rejected by Christians (Titus 3:10). But those who reject the truth and believe falsely are also said to be condemned (2 Thess. 2:10-12). How do we balance these two sides of the coin?
Right now a lot of people from church of Christ backgrounds are struggling with this area of thought. In a sense they too are a product of merger. They have come from religious isolation and encountered others who are emerging from other religious camps. Many are getting their first taste of freedom and they seem not to know what to do with it. They are taking on a practice of tolerance that is new to them. But they also are taking up a personal responsibility to God for their choices and this may not be fully recognized by many.
Back when their membership was in the organized church the doctrinal decisions were made for them. All they had to do was accept them. Who or what could be fellowshipped was also decided for them. But upon realizing that the church had become something God never intended it to be, they left it and things changed suddenly, Now each one is the "quarterback" of his own life and the ball is being snapped to him ready or not. To a great many people it is like finding yourself on the field and playing a game you do not understand the rules of, on a field with which you are not familiar, and a game whose point and purpose is somewhat vague to you.
Most people in this situation seem to know for sure that what they broke away from is not a right thing. But they are not quite sure what is right. This can be scary. But it can also be enlightening to think about it from that angle.
Is it not the case that this situation has restored something that should not have been destroyed in the first place, one's personal relationship with God as taught in scripture? Whether you regard the modern organized church as an acceptable way to serve God or not, one thing is certain, the problems of personal choice in matters of freedom, a right tolerance level, and responsibility to truth are not solved in the organization. They are only hidden and evaded, which gives a false sense of security. Breaking free of that does not create these problems, it just unmasks them. They are there already.
Certainly it is true that God, in calling us by the Gospel, calls us together in His "ekklesia." There is a collective aspect to God's family on earth from which we should receive encouragement and edification, even criticism and rebuke sometimes. But this does not call for a hierarchy wherein men rule over other men. That usurps a status forbidden in scripture (Mt. 10:25-27).
This is the point at which so many today have left the organized church. It has become more of a hindrance than a help to their spiritual life. In many cases the friction is so great that they are asked to leave.
When this happens, although it does fix some of the problems, a whole new can of worms is opened. Now there are decisions and choices that have to be made in the areas we have mentioned. It is not a case of leaving God, it is a case of removing a self-appointed ecclesiasticism from between you and God. But those men are not altogether wrong and the organization is striving for many things that are right. Do not throw out the baby with the bath water. "Exhort one another daily" is still a command of God. "Teaching and admonishing one another" is a God-given obligation, as is "rebuke" with all long-suffering and doctrine. If we throw out all ideas of concern for each other or concern for the truth we throw out a mighty big part of the Bible.
As Christians we are called to be free. But we must not use that freedom as an excuse for evil. We still need to have concern for each other and concern for truth and for living according to what God's word says is truth. We might put it this way: We need fellow Christians but we do not need self appointed "priests" to rule over us.
For too many people the choices to be made in the matters we speak of involve decisions they are not used to making. Hence, the uncertainty and many times outright confusion. Often it seems to be somewhat like walking into a supermarket of assorted doctrines and making random selections from shelves full of notions and ideas. Something that has appeal is chosen and things without appeal are rejected. Inner feelings of insecurity and fear often develop because the decisions lack the solid Biblical foundation that makes one feel secure. There may be a subconscious awareness of this without conscious realization. We just feel uneasy.
It is not a healthy thing to remain a spiritual infant throughout life. We need to learn to walk and how to feed ourselves. We need to learn to discern between right and wrong and to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We do not need to be customers of a commercial religious operation. We need to adopt the way of God as our way of life, not as a ceremonial ritual. If it takes a heartbreaking misadventure to force this realization upon us, so be it. The important thing is that we do grasp it and become mature people of God. For most of us it is completely new ground and that should not have been the case in the first place.
None of us is infallible. We should not be put in the place of the hierarchy you left. What we all should do is exhort, offer Biblical teaching and urge you to study it for yourself. In that vein I offer these suggestions as to how we may best use what God has put into our hands:
1. Remember that freedom is not an end in itself, but the means to an end. We are free from human religious rulings but not free from God's laws.
2. It is not WHO is right that is important but WHAT is right. As one looks over the religious world today he sees a maze of contradictory doctrines. Every choice of what to believe must be made on the basis of Bible study, not on the basis of WHO says WHAT about it. This will mean that on some points we will agree with one group while on other points we will agree with a different group. If we are not free to do this then we are still in bondage.
3. TOLERANCE is not the same thing as irresponsibility. Allowing a person to have his convictions when they disagree with mine does not require that I express an agreement with him that is not what I really believe. Neither does tolerance require that I refrain from stating my disagreement. Each of us is obligated to contend for what he believes, but each is also obligated to allow one who disagrees to do the same thing.
4. The responsibility of a teacher is awesome (James 3:1). Our thinking has usually been, "It is true because the Bible says it." But it is more accurate to say, "The Bible says it because it is true." The things said in the Bible are facts and that is why the Bible says them. They remain facts even if we manipulate some passages and ignore others and make it appear differently. This does not actually change reality, it only robs us of the knowledge of those facts. This is never good. Anyone who would presume to teach another about the way of God in anything, has the grave responsibility to get all the facts and to get them straight. Too many of us have been content to leave the responsibility of fact gathering to others but at the same time we have assumed the right to be teachers of absolutes.
It is not our calling to "Go into all the world and agree with everybody, teaching them whatever they already believe." It is our calling to take the Gospel of Christ to every creature in the world, teaching it in word and in manner of life.
We are not authorized to grade the papers of our fellow students nor to pronounce the verdict on who is making a passing grade and who is failing. God will judge His people. But while we abstain from judgment, let us not abstain also from being honest with the facts God has given us, to the best of our ability. The fact that I have to disavow the authority of men to do this does not diminish my responsibility to the authority of God. Faithfulness is still a matter of following what the Bible says in everything. This is security that is real.