For over a decade now our work on behalf of divorce recovery has consisted largely of travelling all over the nation. We have met an awful lot of people, visited with a lot of churches, studied with many leadership groups, preachers and elders, and observed people over a wide spectrum of the religious world. My feeling is that this may have been one of the most significant decades in history for the cause of Christ.
Many things have changed and many changes are in progress, some for the better and some for the worse. I have been impressed with the fact that a real transition is taking place in religious thought over all. There is much disillusionment with churches and organizations but at the same time a greatly increased number of people believe in God, Christ, and the Bible. When the war started in the Gulf there was a nationwide call to prayer, from the president on down, on behalf of our men and women serving there. And the nation responded.
Almost everywhere that people gathered in groups, prayer vigils were held. This is basically a nation of believers in God. But it is also a nation of people with very little understanding about God or of His ways. Zeal for God coupled with ignorance about God makes for incredible gullibility. Right now religious charlatans and con artists are really having a field day. Everywhere we go we encounter people asking for undenominational, non-sectarian, plain Bible Christianity. This is what everybody wants. But for the most part it is not what they are getting.
At the same time I have been impressed with improvements among churches of Christ. But here again, there is good news and bad news. A burst of freedom in personal use of the Bible has taken place, along with more independence from the self appointed ecclesiasticisms who have been trying to govern. This ranges not only among the rank and file members but also involves, I would say, a majority of leaders such as preachers and elders. People now use their concordances and other Bible helps to "look things up" for themselves instead of just swallowing everything that comes from the pulpits. Most church members now read books from a wide range of authors outside their own church group. Our own teaching mission, aimed at reforming the "dark age" attitude toward divorce recovery, has in recent years been received with open and objective minds among several leadership groups of exceedingly high ranking among churches of Christ and among Christian churches also.
There is indeed good news as concerns progress on some of our worst attitude problems, both in and out of this brotherhood. Right now the potential for success in building up the kingdom of God is probably greater than it has been in many years. But there is also an adverse side to the picture. Along with the freedom of mind and the taste for the non-sectarian way of God, has also come some very disturbing notions about how to find it and how to be guided in the practice of it. The part that is to be played by the Bible in the lives of people who want to please God and to follow His way seems to be the most vague, blurred, and indistinct that it has ever been for so many people.
People are breaking away from the old concept of the Bible as a book of legal statutes and law codes, and this is good. But in doing so too many are embracing another misconception that is equally destructive against the truth. They are looking at the Bible as a handbook of creative suggestions and poetic literature, not as the only source of information from God as to what His will is. They still say they follow the Bible as the final standard of measurement, but they do not appear to have much of a realization of how important it is to actually perform that ideal. I believe this is of extremely vital concern. To understand the way of God and live by it we must understand the part God has assigned the Bible to play in that so we can "handle aright the word of truth." (2 Tim. 2: 15).
In reading the Bible we surely see that the form in which it is written is NOT that of a dictionary, encyclopedia, or book of laws. The practice of "proof-texting" using selected excerpts from the Bible with little or no regard for context, to "prove" a slanted viewpoint, is wrong and misleading. That kind of misuse usually causes people to fail to see the grace, love, and mercy part of the Biblical message.
But on the other hand, those who dwell on grace, love, and mercy isolated from the laws and commandments given in scripture, also make a mistake of serious consequence. They lose sight of the Bible as the authoritative word of God, the means by which God's will is made known to man, and end up with no measuring standard of any substance or clear definition. I firmly believe that in God's plan for man to know Him, no piece of the puzzle is any more vital than the part which is to be played by the Bible, rightly used among the people of God. Conversely, I believe if this piece of the puzzle is not in place it is an omission of the very element of life itself for the way of the lord. When you stop to realize that Jesus said, "The seed is the word of God (Luke 8:11), and that this seed has to be planted for the kingdom to be produced, you see how vital the word is. If the Bible is the word of God, the seed of the kingdom, then what could be more vital? And this may be the real issue that is in question. Is the Bible the only word of God and is its message the only genuine seed of the kingdom?
A very common argument offered against this idea is based on the fact that the New Testament scriptures were not written until after Christianity had existed for several decades. It is pointed out "the Lord's family of faith" existed and functioned in its early years without the Bible as we know it. Many believe this justifies the idea that the Bible is not intended to be the exclusive and absolute guide for the Lord's followers.
This is a terrible mistake in reasoning and probably represents an over reaction against the misuse of the Bible as a book of statutes and legal codes. It is true that the first books of our New Testament were written 25 or 30 years after the Pentecost day of Acts 2. Yes, the "ekklesia" of Christ existed before these books were written. But it is not true that these people became Christians and functioned as Christians without the New Testament! They had exactly the same New Testament we have, different in form, oral instead of written, but not different in content.
The fact is the New Testament existed hundreds of years before AD 33 in yet another form, thoughts in the mind of God. In Jeremiah 31:31 God specified that in the future he planned to "make a new covenant (or testament) with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah." The events of Pentecost day (Acts 2) could not take place until this covenant was put into another form, the spoken word. On that occasion Peter said that the promises to David of hundreds of years earlier, were being fulfilled as predicted by the prophets, that Jesus had ascended into heaven, received "the promise of the Father," and that He "hath shed forth this which ye now see and hear" (Verse 33).
Do not be misled by the matter of the form in which this New Testament existed at any given time in history. It was and is the final, exclusive, covenant will of God, delivered as certainly and precisely in spoken words as it was later delivered in written words. It was not subject to later revisions. It did not contain anything different at the first than it contains now in written form. The "way of the Lord" did not come into existence apart from the New Testament and the first converts did not function as Christians apart from the New Testament. I do not believe any lesson is more urgently needed to be learned today than this one. Ignorance of it right now threatens the very existence of the whole plan of God for man's redemption.
It was in the interest of this precise covenant that Jesus came to earth. One of the things He stressed most while here was the fact that there are no alternative choices for those who want to relate to God. He said that even He himself spoke only what God had assigned Him to speak. "For I have not spoken of myself, but the Father which sent me, He gave me a commandment, what I should say and what I should speak" (John 12:49). In the previous verse He said that any who reject this word would be judged by that very word on the last day. So even Jesus, a member of the Godhead, spoke strictly according to this pre-ordained covenant, exactly as God gave it to Him. Would this have been the case if the covenant were as flexible and imprecise as many now think it is?
But be careful not to misunderstand. This is not to say that perfection is required in man's performance of this covenant. The covenant itself, according to Jeremiah's prediction, made provision for man's imperfections. "I will forgive their sins and remember their iniquities no more," was the promise. But this does not mean that the Gospel itself is anything less than absolutely precise and accurate.
In John, chapters 14 through 16, Jesus was preparing His apostles for His departure back into heaven. He told them they would not be left alone without a comforter and a guide in their assignment to be His "witnesses." He said the Holy Spirit would come and remain with them in that capacity (16:13). He then added that the Spirit would observe the same restrictions in what He would say that Jesus Himself had been under. "For he shall not speak of himself but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he also speak, and he will show you things to come." Back in chapter 14 He had said at verse 26, "But the comforter, which is the Holy Ghost. whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things and bring all things to your remembrance whatsoever 1 have said unto you.
The emphasis throughout is on divine control of the message to insure precision accuracy. Jesus Himself was subject to it, the Holy Spirit, who was with them after Jesus departed, was subject to it; and later the men thus guided by the Spirit put into writing the books which we refer to as "the New Testament." What then did they write? Did they create a message in their time that presented the people with a nice way to live life, but was flexible and even subject to revisions later?
Absolutely not! Just as Jesus before them, and just as the Holy Spirit Himself, these inspired writers delivered the message exactly as God Himself had given it, taking great care not to make any alterations in it. The message of Galatians chapter one is that there is only one Gospel and that is the one received by revelation from Jesus Christ. At verse 8 Paul said that even if "an angel from heaven preaches any other Gospel than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed."
Think about it a moment. Jesus, God's own Son, did not say anything but what the Father had told Him to say. The Holy Spirit, sent to guide the apostles, did not say anything but what God had told Him to say. And the apostles were restricted in exactly the same way in what they taught and wrote. Their memory, was not trusted to be accurate in forming the written word but was controlled by the Spirit of God. Now why was the delivering of the New Testament will of God so tightly guarded against any possibility of change?
Jesus provides the answer to this question in John chapter 6. It is because these are not just ordinary words. At verse 63 He said, "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life." These are the only "words of eternal life". At verse 68, after some had turned back from following Jesus and He had asked His disciples if they would also turn away, Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life." So when you talk about flexibility In God's plan for saving man, or about truth existing in some way apart from the New Testament word of God, you are talking serious error, a concept that contradicts what Jesus believed, what the Holy Spirit believed, and what the apostles believed about the matter. Yes, the word existed first in spoken form and later in written form. But the same precautions about precision accuracy were exercised in every case. It is very important that this distinction between the words that came from God and words that came from human minds be understood and retained.
Some of you may not like this line of thought because you are thinking, "This means there is no room for mistake. If I make the slightest error I will be forever lost!" No, it does NOT mean that. In fact, it means the very opposite. You will not be lost for honest mistakes. Why? Precisely because this word is accurate and it says that God will be "merciful to their unrighteousness" and "their sins and iniquities will I remember no more" (Heb. 8: 12). How could we be sure of salvation in spite of our imperfections in performance if the word that promises it is not inflexible and precisely accurate? The very ground of the hope we have is the reliability of the Bible we follow.
It is true, obviously, that words and phrases in which this message is expressed do vary. There are many different English translations because there are different words and phrases in our language to express the same idea. There is also the task of publishing the message in other languages. The apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit to speak the message in languages they had not previously learned. They did not use the same words in addressing Greek speaking people that they did in speaking to Hebrew people. They would not have been understood. So again we see that the form into which the message is put has to vary. But the content, the message itself, must not be varied or changed.
What we call the New Testament is actually a series of writings in which the Gospel is made known and also teachings are applied to specific cases. For example, the Corinthians were rebuked for having division among themselves. Why? Because division is contrary to the will of the Lord. The message is not put into the form "thou shalt not have divisions among you," but that is what the message amounts to. Putting stumbling blocks before others is another violation of God's will and this is taught in chapter 8 of the First Corinthian letter. Although it is not expressed in the legal form, "Thou shalt not put stumbling blocks before others," it would be wrong for us to deny the prohibition against placing stumbling blocks or to change it in any way.
The words of caution about keeping this message pure and unchanged apply both ways. We must neither add anything to it nor take anything from it (Rev. 22:18-19). Many well-meaning Christians, in the interest of protecting the Gospel have diluted it by adding restrictions prohibiting things which are not even mentioned in God's message at all. Others have taken unwarranted liberties with the message by seeing some things that are commanded as optional, one may do them or omit them. Unity is one of these and so is tolerance and "forbearing one another in love" in our differences. Still others add their feelings, their hunches, their interpretations of physical things that happen around them, as additional expressions of the will of God.
In giving us the Bible and protecting the message against alteration so carefully, God recognizes an important reality that many now need to learn. For people who want to hold to truth precisely, the first thing necessary is a fixed and reliable standard. I believe the Bible is the only provision to serve that purpose for the will of God. This is not to say that God does nothing in this world outside the pages of the Bible. I think it is obvious that He does. But that is another subject. Our point here is that God has spoken and that the Bible is that message. God still runs this world and His promises about Christ living in the Christian and enabling him to be what God wants him to be are valid and are carried out every day. But God is not revealing His will to man outside the Bible nor changing anything it says and neither is the Holy Spirit, or Jesus Christ, nor any angels from heaven. It is not God's will that people be drifting about today in uncertainty about what He wants, like sheep who have no shepherd. We do have a shepherd and we need to hear His voice and His voice only in determining what God wants for our lives. "Forever, 0 Lord, thy word is settled in heaven" (Psalms 119:89).