he Los Angeles Times carries a cartoon called "Mr. Boffo" which sometimes has as its theme the idea that someone is "unclear on the concept." Typically it depicts some situation in which the actions of the characters are so inappropriate that one can only conclude that these people have a faulty understanding of the concept involved. For example, a recent installment pictured a security guard in his office watching the closed-circuit TV monitor. The monitor shows a gargantuan monster breaking into the facility. Rather than initiating any kind of emergency response measures, the guard is eating popcorn and thoroughly enjoying the scene. He thinks he is watching a movie! This man is definitely "unclear on the concept."
Unfortunately, this little cartoon is an apt illustration of much that goes on within the Church of Christ institution these days. Too many who have influence within the institution are woefully "unclear on the concept" when it comes to concepts like grace, acceptance, unity, and fellowship.
Jesus said his disciples would be known for their love for one another. This description could be applied without reservation to many individual members of the Church of Christ today. But is this what the institution is known for, by and large? In my experience, it is known more for its dogmatism, its self-righteous assertions that its members alone constitute the true church, its negative attitude toward all others, and its willingness to divide over even the most trivial of disagreements.
Several years ago, when I lived in a different area, some brothers decided I was "soft" on instrumental music. The director of the school of preaching for the area was brought in to preach for two Sunday nights on "the sin of instrumental music" and the danger of having anyone among us who was unable to see things just as he did. He compared this dangerous situation to that of the body when it has a jammed thumb. "And you know what you have to do then," he said. "You have to cut it off!" Probably the man didn't say what he really meant, but I also believe he must have been "unclear on the concept."
Early in the nineteenth century, when the Restoration Movement was just beginning, Thomas Campbell was charged with "latitudinarianism" by those who felt he didn't draw the lines of fellowship as tightly as he should. (As Campbell himself said, "Let none be startled at this gigantic term." A more modern synonym would be what some call "liberalism".) In the Declaration and Address, a long tract in which he explained his views on restoring unity to the church, Campbell responded to this charge, saying:
"To which of these, think you, does the odious charge of Latitudinarianism belong? Which of them takes the greatest latitude? Whether those that expressly judge and condemn where they have no express warrant for so doing, or those that absolutely refuse so to do?
To paraphrase in a more modern style, who is it that is "unclear on the concept?" Who is more "liberal?" Those who refuse to judge where God has not expressly judged, or those who take the liberty of condemning and rejecting others over matters God has not expressly spoken of in the Bible?
The disciples also were "unclear on the concept" at one time. They felt justified in taking the liberty of rejecting and condemning someone who was attempting to do a good work in the name of Jesus. After all, he hadn't been authorized like they had! Jesus told them, "Do not forbid him" (Mark 9:39). Their assumption was totally backwards. They were the presumptuous ones, not the man they confronted. It is wrong to take the liberty of forbidding and condemning where the Lord has not done so.
The Pharisees, of course, are the paramount example of being "unclear on the concept." On one occasion Jesus told the Pharisees, "If you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matthew 12:7). Jesus and his disciples had not violated anything the law actually said, but their actions did go against the inferences and conclusions the Pharisees had drawn from the law.
The Pharisees needed to know that there were more important concepts involved than their personal opinions about what was allowed or not allowed on the Sabbath. Similarly, there are more important concepts involved here than our modern notions about "necessary inferences" and "binding examples."
The Pharisees were even willing to set aside clear principles of scripture if such got in the way of their personal opinions. Thomas Campbell noted a similar tendency in his day. "There is a manifest distinction between an express Scripture declaration, and the conclusion or inference which may be deduced from it," he wrote. He went on to say, "The express commands to preserve and maintain inviolate Christian unity and love, ought not to be set aside to make way for exalting our inferences above the express authority of God." But such things went on, and they go on still in the divisions perpetuated by the institutional church.
In his book Runaway World, Michael Green said:
"The church has gone a long way to make Christianity incredible. It is the church, not Jesus Christ, that is the main stumbling-block for ordinary people."
I'm afraid that is all too true. The Church of Christ institution continues to hack off what it perceives to be jammed thumbs. With a little more patience it might discover there are less painful - and more Biblical - ways of dealing with such problems.
"Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand ... Then let us no more pass judgment on one another ... Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God' (Romans 14:2, 3, 12, 13; 15:7).