Not long ago I saw an advertisement of "The Church of Christ" in the Saturday edition of a news paper. The local minister announced as his subject for the following evening, "Where Would the Apostle Paul Attend Church in our Town?" This seems to be a favorite topic with a lot of the brethren. They assume that if Paul arrived in the city the first thing he would do when he walked to the city limits would be to make enquiry for them. The inference is that "The Church of Christ" as we know it is an exact replica of the ekklesia which Paul knew. This is no doubt wistful thinking and it would probably be nearer the truth to say that any likeness between the two is purely incidental Ė or accidental.
There is a widespread notion extant that we have restored the primitive order of things until Paul would feel quite at home among us. Some debaters, possessed of more brass than knowledge, affirm that the church of which they are members is identical in origin, name, doctrine and practice, with that of the New Testament scriptures. Occasionally we are treated to the sight of two champions of rival "Churches of Christ," both of whom affirm this about their respective parties at the same time they deny the claim of each other. Both are right and both are wrong. They are both wrong in what they affirm and both right in what they deny.
The fact of the matter is that most of us have been considerably brainwashed. I use this term advisedly for I recognize it is only to be applied to those in other religious parties and should never be used with reference to "members of the Lord's church." However, at the risk of becoming decidedly unpopular, I would like to suggest that the organization currently denominated "The Church of Christ" is not actually a restoration of the first century church at all but is a twentieth century party growing out of the abuse of a nineteenth century restoration movement. The last thing that a majority of its members want to see is a real serious attempt to restore the primitive ekklesia. Nothing would surprise them more than to be transported back through the centuries and be taken to a meeting of the saints in Philippi or Rome. None of them would recognize it as a gathering of "the faithful church" and most of them would promise the Lord that if he would forgive them for attending this time they would never do it again.
The only thing I can think of which would equal their surprise would be the astonishment of the apostle Paul if he were to attend one of our meetings and hear his writings quoted as authority for some of the practices and performances. He would certainly be surprised at the "sermon" topic of "the minister" as announced, for several reasons. While Paul was on earth he did not "attend church." The ekklesia (church) was composed of persons. One did not "go to church" but the church did the going! One did not "attend church" but the church did the attending.
However, the subject of the address would not sound any more strange to the apostle than the idea of "a sermon." He never used the term nor did any of the other inspired writers. Origen was rightly designated "the father of their sermon" and he did not arrive on the scene until after Paul had been dead more than a hundred years. Origen was the third president of the first Christian College which was started in Alexandria, Egypt, about A.D. 180, and which the historian John Lawrence Mosheim said became "the grave of primitive Christianity." Apparently the primitive order was put to sleep by sermonizing, a form of sedation which is still quite effective, but an overdose of which (like most other sleep-inducing drugs) may prove fatal to the body.
Of course, the general supposition is that the apostle would be induced to attend by virtue of the name "Church of Christ" over the door of the building. This might not be the case at all. When Paul was alive the saints did not put signs on their meeting places and for a very good reason. They were afraid people would find out where they met. It was difficult enough to keep out of the hands of the persecutors without telling them where to locate you.
In any event a sign reading "Church of Christ" might not mean a great deal to Paul. He did not use the expression in any of the letters he wrote to congregations. Once he mentioned "churches of Christ" to the Romans but in the same connection (he did not divide his letter into chapters and verses) he also mentioned "churches of the Gentiles" and one was no more a title than the other. It just could be that he might drop in on a meeting of the "Church of God" because he refers to "the church of God" and "the churches of God" frequently. Or, in a large city he could get side-tracked and go to a colored "Church of God in Christ" because he would likely find it in a slum area and that is probably where he would be looking. When he was on earth "not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble were called." He might not know that God had changed since the world became more civilized. When he labored for God he said, "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things are which despised hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought the things that are."
Even if he went to a "Church of Christ" it might not be "the loyal church." There are now at least twenty-five different brands of "The Church of Christ" and while the members of each one think theirs is the "New Testament church" they also think all of the others are disloyal and apostate. They would feel obligated to warn the apostle to "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness" such as breaking the loaf before passing it or using unfermented wine in the Lordís Supper. He would be cautioned to stay away from congregations that had classes or those that didn't have them (depending on which one he fell in with first) and he would be shown how to mark brethren and avoid them. It would be difficult for him to associate this with anything he wrote to the Romans, but he would be informed that what he said was the basis for all of the division. He would no doubt think this very strange since he thought he was writing to offset division and promote unity.
It is commonly held by most members of "The Church of Christ" that the apostle would have to attend with them because of "the pattern." This phrase has been adopted to describe the method employed in carrying out their various functions and services. It is borrowed from the writer of the Hebrews who related how God told Moses when he was about to make the tabernacle, "See that thou make all things according to the pattern showed thee in the mount." It is assumed that inasmuch as God gave Moses the most minute details about the earthly sanctuary he has done the same for us with regard to heavenly things. They seem to overlook the fact that the first tabernacle was to be constructed and pitched by man under divine direction, so nothing was left to judgment or conscience, whereas it is distinctly said that now Jesus is a high priest in "the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched and not man."
Disregarding this, various groups from time to time, looking at the new covenant scriptures as merely another legalistic code, take them and attempt to "pitch the true tabernacle" themselves according to the pattern. However, in each instance "the pattern" is the interpretation which the group places upon the sacred writings and their opinions concerning what God means. All agree that the pattern is so plain that any person can understand it, but this is about as far as the agreement goes. Each group pitches its own "true tabernacle" and then they pitch into each other. When Moses built the first tabernacle all twelve tribes encamped around the one structure but now each tribe has constructed its own. There are more than two dozen "true tabernacles" called "The Church of Christ" with the priests in each going daily on the radio "accomplishing the service of God" by challenging the priests of the others to debate.
It is obvious that men can make "the pattern" mean just about what they want it to mean. Generally it is a reproduction of the group practices and procedures with which they became familiar in "the church down home." If the congregation in which they grew up had three songs followed by prayer to open the service, they feel uncomfortable and out of place where the service is opened by reading from the sacred scripture followed by meditation and prayer. It isn't "according to the pattern" to do it the other way.
If they have been accustomed to "an invitation song" at the close and they attend where the brethren conclude their public worship on a devotional plane without it they feel like they have "just not been to meeting." They never stop to enquire on what ground a congregation suspends its praise directed to God and all begin to shout together in melodic strains to the sinner (if any) who are present: "Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore!" They may be wont to hear those who have just observed the feast in the Father's house get to their feet a few minutes later and testify in unison and in four-four time, "I've wandered far away from God, now I'm coming home." This must be taken with a grain of salt, of course, for if someone else would intimate that they are still a long way from home, he would be cast out of the synagogue. Such songs are projected toward others, for this too is a part of the pattern. One wonders what the apostle Paul would think if he "attended church" where a part of the worship was directed toward aliens and where a man stood up while the rest sang in D flat, "There's a Stranger at the door, let him in!"
No doubt it would startle the apostle no end if he fell in with one of our contemporary factions whose members have deducted from his writings that the "scriptural form of worship" be opened with prayer and that they cannot regard any as "faithful" who follow any other pattern. It probably never occurred to him as he wrote to Timotheus, "I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men" that someone would come up with the idea that he was laying down a law governing the sequence of "the items of worship" Ė especially since he knew nothing about items of worship. The Holy Spirit neglected to use that phrase in his revelation, but that has not kept it from becoming a part of "the pattern."
It would help us a great deal in these days in our approach to some of our problems if we would just admit that the pattern (or patterns) we follow is primarily a concoction of human judgment, sanctified in our sight by traditional observance and consecrated by partisan prejudice we have absorbed along the way. We know that it is difficult indeed to be so frank and honest in any appraisal of our own position. We have all been conditioned to believe that the way we do things is Godís will for this generation and for all people in all ages.
Because we tend to confuse our interpretation with God's revelation, it appears that if we concede we may be wrong about some things it is the equivalent of accusing God of being in error. There is a difference. Revelation is what God actually said. Interpretation is what we think he meant by what he said. The first is divine, it is the uncovering of the infinite mind. The second is human, it is the result of research and investigation by finite minds. The first is unalterable, there is no more to be said by God. The second is subject to amendment for there is much more to be learned by man. The sectarian spirit is always opposed to true research. It seeks to embalm what has been learned in the past and make this the body of truth by which all else is to be judged.
It is true that all of the factional leaders urge their adherents to study but they do not really mean it. Nothing is more dangerous or detrimental to any party than for its members to make an unbiased study and really search for truth. Study, as the word is used by partisan preachers, means to "search the scriptures" to work out additional arguments in defense of that for which the party contends. Since this is a purely prejudicial attitude no one who employs it can hope to arrive at real truth. He will have a slanted version which in his own warped mind will appear to be straight. The result of fear on our own conception of thought when we seek to drink at the fountain of knowledge can be seen in some of the ringstraked, speckled and spotted ideas so characteristic of our brothers.
No sect or faction can long retain within its number a truly honest and individual thinker. All history, without exception, demonstrates that every such person is eventually labeled a heretic and driven forth. To be a good member of a party one should abstain from study and content himself with mere repetition of the party line. To stifle freedom of thought and to provide a means of keeping the people in check every faction works out a pattern which is then bound upon the members as "the scriptural way." Any deviation from this unwritten creed is looked upon as digression from the truth. This is punishable by banishment from the party. It is the thinkers who are excluded!
In order to enforce "the law" and to make it applicable to the body of believers, spiritual principles are reduced to a rigid formula. This enables the average person to have a sense of security and well being for by going through with the regulations he convinces himself that he has done the will of God and is safe. Every faction, sooner or later, makes "safety" its rule of faith and practice instead of the revelation of God. By doing so it can enforce its unwritten creed as a substitute in areas where God has not legislated. "But it is safe to do it this way" becomes an iron clad and inflexible law and is expected to silence not only any objection to that method but any suggestion of another method. The truth is that there may be more than one "safe" way of doing many things. The one who on the basis of safety, rather than upon the authority of revelation, enshrines his way as the only one, creates a creed as certainly as that can be done. Unwritten creeds produce cleavages! .
Certainly no one should object to any group desiring to be safe, but it is very unfortunate that such groups also frequently desire to be dogmatic. It is one thing to be safe, a wholly different thing to become legislators and judges. Nor must it be overlooked that Christianity is a great adventure and there are certain risks involved. One can make safety his "god" and stay so close to shore he will do nothing but fritter his life away dabbling in the shallows. Faith does not choose the easy way and not always what is labeled the "safe" way. It recognizes that there may be more than one way to do some things. Faith risks all. We must always stay within the limit of God's will and purpose. We must never transgress. But that will is not bounded or limited by areas marked "Safe" simply to gratify partisan practices or traditional procedures.
One of the tragedies of creating a purely ritualistic or legalistic approach to God lies in the fact that it makes spirit expansion impossible. The most intimate and inspiring relationships are reduced to cold formal transactions. A good illustration of what we mean is found in what is referred to as "the plan of salvation." That moment when a longing soul makes contact with God through the Spirit should be of all the experiences of which we are capable the most glorious and transcendent. "I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant." Unfortunately the glory of that encounter has been obscured by projecting a purely intellectual process which acts as a veil over the heart.
The approach to God is described by a rigidly prescribed set of stairs up which one may clamber in a hop, skip and jump procedure, the last step landing him safely in the kingdom. We have been treated to charts and diagrams with little kitchen step-ladders leading out of darkness into light, and with the steps labeled hearing, faith, repentance, confession and baptism. The inference certainly is left that we climb out simply by exercise of our own power and strength and all that the Father has done is to set a ladder up against the wall in the hope that we will stumble on to it while looking for Him. The legalistic attitude is seen when we remember that if a person takes two steps at once the final step does not land him in the kingdom at all but dumps him outside and he has to start over and make the climb under the guidance of one "of our preachers." If one does not fully comprehend what he is stepping into when he takes the last rung of the ladder, he merely steps off into space, and has to be put through the performance again or he will not be allowed with the rest of the people in "the Lords church."
I suggest in all sincerity that if one wants to find a common, everyday illustration of how we have access by one Spirit to the Father, an escalator provides a much better figure than a ladder. In climbing a ladder one leaves the previous step each time in order to ascend to the next one. But one should never quit hearing Godís word, nor should he ever stop believing what God has said. He ought always to repent of his sins when necessary. For those who have arbitrarily injected public confession as a formal step for an alien, without a shred of authority, it needs to be recalled that "profession" is a much better translation of the term.
In the case of an escalator one climbs on the first step and stands there in full confidence as an invisible power lifts him up to a higher plane. The unseen power in this case is the grace of God and the first step is faith. "By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast." An escalator does not reach out and grab one and force him to go to a higher plan. A man will get nowhere on an escalator unless he exercises his will to take the first step. This places him in position where the power which is always there becomes operative in his personal behalf. By this means we do not climb and struggle up to the next shelf of repentance but we are led to it. "Do you not know that the goodness of God leadeth you to repentance?"
A man does not climb out of sin. If he could do so he would have just ground for pride. But the record says, "What room then is left for human pride? It is excluded" (Romans 3:27). We are liberated from sin, lifted out of it, and that by a person. The act of liberation is not ours, but his. "For all alike have sinned, and are deprived of the divine splendor, and all are justified by God's free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus. For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death, effective through faith" (Romans 3:23-25). We are not saved from wrath by a plan but through a man. "For if, when we were Godís enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life." This is the conclusion of Paul immediately following the statement, "And so, since we have now been justified by Christís sacrificial death, we shall all the more certainly be saved through him from final retribution."
We do not climb up under our own power, but through humility and self-denial we place ourselves in that state where we can be lifted up. "Humble yourselves before God and he will lift you high" (James 4:10). It may sound treasonable to many of my readers but on the basis of the scriptural meaning of faith, we are justified by faith alone, for everything else is merely a manifestation or perfecting of faith. It is distinctly stated that the only thing which avails in Christ Jesus is faith Ė faith which works by love! The purpose of works is to demonstrate or manifest faith. It is faith that must be shown. "And I by my works will show you my faith" (James 2:18).
Those who plot a legalistic course refer to the expression "who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham" (Romans 4: 12). This is done to make it appear that these steps were works performed by Abraham for justification. But this is a positive contradiction of the very purpose of the apostle in introducing Abraham. His thesis is that "the promise was made on the ground of faith, in order that it might be a matter of sheer grace" (verse 16). For that reason he begins with the positive declaration "If Abraham was justified by anything he had done, then he has a ground for pride. But he has no such ground before God" (verse 2). The steps of Abraham did not consist of things which he did or of works he performed as deeds of righteousness. They were "steps of faith" and the RSV renders the clause correctly, "but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had."
We are not saved by works although we cannot be saved without them. We are not saved because we work, but we work because we are saved. We are not products of our own workmanship. We are not self-created. We do not enter God's family by what we do for him but by what he does for us. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." The New English Bible renders this, "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to devote ourselves to the good deeds for which God has designed us."
In our attempts to simplify and systematize for sermon outlines, we have minimized and quenched the Spirit until the deep sense of personal encounter with God has been sacrificed for a written code. The result is that our factions are loaded with unhappy, discontented, frightened men and women, who live in constant dread of what they will find in their law book, which actually is a compilation and collection of love letters which God designed to stimulate spiritual growth and togetherness. We have ignored the statement of the apostle, "But now, having died to that which held us bound, we are discharged from the law, to serve God in a new way, the way of the spirit, in contrast to the old way, the way of a written code" (Romans 7:6). Certainly reformation of life and immersion into Christ Jesus are essential, but they are of no avail unless they are demonstrations of faith which is motivated by love! Conforming to them as legal requirements will achieve but little except to make us frustrated and disappointed with ourselves.
What has here been said of "the plan of salvation" may be said of the various other formulae and rituals which we have created and developed by taking a passage here and another there and out of these weaving our party design which we henceforth regard as "the pattern." This writer looks askance at the attempts to formalize and standardize the Way by pouring certain ingredients into the matrix of human rationalization which then becomes the unwritten creed by which we judge all men. It is certainly doubtful if any of the apostles ever delivered what passes today for a "Church of Christ sermon." Certainly none of them ever offered an outline on "The Law of Pardon" or "The Steps of Salvation." These are our modern trappings, adaptations of the Good News to the superficial tastes of our decadent world. Paul would be amazed at some of the dissertations based on popular sermon outlines. He would feel a revulsion against the cheap diatribes and sensational appeals.
We are a long way yet from the primitive simplicity in which the Good News was the message of grace to the unsaved and the apostolic doctrine was the course of instruction for the training and discipline of the saved ones. If Paul came to one of our meetings he would have to be oriented for he would find but little resemblance between them and the meetings he knew in "the upper room." He might conclude that we were a synagogue dedicated to the ignoble task of fostering ill-will among believers in the Messiah and of spreading division. He once gave instruction that the saints, the committed ones, were to endeavor to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. He would be saddened and distressed by how far we have departed from that ideal. The fact of the matter is I just wonder where he would attend if he came to town. - W. Carl Ketcherside