News has it that this will be the last regular issue of The Examiner. In a way I guess this means we have now come to the Final Exam, at least as far as this periodical is concerned. In the beginning I was asked to write for the paper, which on occasion I have tried to do. Now I am asked to write for the last time. This is a more difficult assignment for obvious reasons. Hopefully something will come out of the computer this time that will be appropriate and worthwhile.
First, and naturally, I feel a need to be somewhat personal. As I think back over the life span of The Examiner and my limited involvement in it, I become more and more aware of what a wonderful experience it has been. The challenge of trying to write words worth reading has been a constant concern of course. To discover there are those out in "Brotherhood Land" who actually read what is written with interest has been gratifying. Becoming acquainted with some of these readers by mail, and learning from them, has been educational and encouraging. However, by far the greatest personal pleasure I derived from the entire Examiner endeavor has been the opportunity to meet and mingle with some of the finest Christian men and women I have known. This happened mainly at the forums so many of us enjoyed through the years. Friendships were formed there that will last as long as we do. Several of these dear people have already gone to their reward. Others are not far behind. Some I will probably never see again in this life. But no matter. I will always be grateful for the chance to have known these folks, even though so briefly, and will forever cherish their memory.
As to the paper itself, I think it was rightly named. For this is what it has been - an Examiner. Indeed, this is what each of us needs to be. We are told to "examine yourselves whether ye be in the faith." (2 Cor. 13:5) But how shall we examine ourselves without examining what we believe? This paper has provided an avenue for doing this. And believe me, the various writers eventually got around to examining most every nook and cranny of our restoration tradition. This turned out to be painful and disturbing to some. As for myself, frankly I did not agree with every conclusion offered by the writing "Examiners." Some of their ideas were out in left field, some in a different ball park altogether. What I did agree with, however, was the examination process itself. While we must not be too quick to discard traditional beliefs and practices (there may be very good reasons why they became traditional in the first place), we must never be afraid to take a new look at old doctrines.
For the final readers of The Examiner, a few of whom may be first time as well as last time readers, perhaps it would be good to review some of the basic areas where the "examination" has taken place. Foremost and first, with no doubt about it, what has been examined on these pages has been the nature of the Church. More accurately, what has been examined is the "ecclesia" of apostolic times AS OPPOSED TO the "Church" of modem times. The two are not the same. There are two very basic and very different concepts involved here. The modern word CHURCH (often substituted in English translations for the Greek word ecclesia) is perceived in institutional terms. In fact, as matters now stand it IS an institution. The Church differs from the other institutions of society, like schools and banks, only in its area of operation. It is a religious institution rather than an educational or economic institution. Nevertheless it has the same NATURE as any institutional entity on the block. Like any formal institution it has a proper or legal name; it is distinctly "denominated" in other words. It is generally static or stationary, dormant most of the time, operating only at given times and places, only on those occasions when it is "open for business," or when it acts through one of "its" official representatives. Like any institution it is cumbersome. What The Examiner has done is to call in question whether an institutional entity of this type is envisioned in the Scriptures in the first place. Various writers have sought to revive the New Testament concept of an undenominated body of Christ, the "ecclesia of God" that is a living body of saved PEOPLE who can be taken to heaven rather than a legal body that will have to be left on earth. The difference is this. The modem Church finds its likeness in the world in the form of a corporate body; the ecclesia of Christ finds its likeness in a family of people! One is a lifeless institution that has to be "run" by someone, the other is a family of living souls who need to be led in paths of righteousness. Here is truly a choice of "churches"; not a choice between two institutions, one scriptural and the other unscriptural, but a choice between two totally different concepts of what the true "ecclesia" really is. Is the ecclesia of the Bible an institution, a veritable THING? Or, does the word simply denote a group of saved PEOPLE? Please bear in mind that it cannot be both, in one verse an institutional entity, in the next verse a called-out people. It has to be one or the other. There is a big, big difference between these two concepts, believe me. And the more you "examine" it the bigger and more significant it becomes.
The question repeatedly raised by The Examiner is, how do we view the ecclesia/Church? The traditional view has been to accept the religious world's concept of Church, then argue with them on THEIR terms. "My organization is better than yours," "my Church is more scriptural than yours," "my Church has this name but your Church has that name," etc. Among us the usual approach has been to accept the institutional version of Church, then argue with one another about what IT, the holy institution, as such, in its corporate capacity can or cannot do. But once you change your concept from Church to ecclesia, from an institution to a called-out people, then many, many other issues, questions and controversies take on a different look. For example:
Who and what are the "elders of the Church". This will depend altogether on how you define "Church." If you perceive the Church to be an institutional entity (like a bank), then the Elders of the Church must be the religious equivalent of a Board of Directors whose function is to see to it that the institution operates as it should. If, on the other hand, you perceive the ecclesia to be a living, breathing body of people, then the elders of the ecclesia are not corporate Officers who make institutional decisions, but are leaders who lead, shepherds who feed, watchmen who watch after and over those who are behind them in Christ.
What about Church money? Is there a Church treasury? If so, who controls it? What can this money be spent for? Why? And why not? Again, the answer to these questions depends on how you define "Church." If you identify Church as an institution, then obviously the legal Officers of the Institution are the only ones who can appropriate its money. But next you have to figure out from the Scriptures what are lawful expenditures of this Institution's funds and what are unlawful expenditures. This becomes very complicated. Like, it is unscriptural to use "Church money" to feed people inside a church building, but scriptural to use the same money to feed plants outside of the building. Undoubtedly the fertilizer for the lawn is either benevolent, evangelistic, or spiritually edifying, while the food is merely social. Also remember that according to current usage "Church support" of any project always means Institutional support out of Institutional funds. But if you change the definition of "Church" from a holy organization to a holy people, then what does "Church support" mean? If all God's people on earth send money to a project on account of their faith in Jesus, did "the Lord's church" support it?
What about extra-Church institutions? That is, what about those religious organizations, formed by Christians on behalf of Jesus for the purpose of practicing and/or promoting His cause on earth, that are NOT Churches and do not claim to be? All, let me repeat, ALL religious movements have them. Let me say that again. All religious groups have them. In Restoration parlance this means Disciples, Independents, Liberals, Conservatives, Antis, and all parties in between. In spite of what they may preach about the glorious and all sufficient Church, they ALL have their "support Organizations" outside the framework of the official Church. I am referring to religious papers, religious schools, religious publishing houses, etc. Bear in mind that the ONLY reason these organizations were created was the FAITH someone had in Jesus Christ. These non-Church organizations are all designed, built and supported by the "called-out" Christians of some particular persuasion and party. Are such organizations wrong? No one seems to think so. Therefore, assuming that it is one, is the Church the ONLY religious organization God will allow His people to have, use and work through? Evidently not, according to everybody. I say this because EVERYBODY has and uses these non-sacred, non-Church organizations. So, have we REALLY gotten to the bottom of the Church organization question yet?
My point is this. Many (I do not say all) of our arguments over Church officers, Church money and para-Church organizations would be a good deal more simple if the Institutional Church was not on center stage. After all, IT, the CHURCH, in its formal "as such" capacity, is at the heart of most all these controversies. But what if the Bible word "ecclesia" never conveyed the concept of an impersonal institution to begin with? What if ecclesia is in fact a PEOPLE word? Then all the answers, indeed all the questions in this area, will have to be revised.
How will history view The Examiner? No one knows. Certainly it is too early to guess. It may well be that it will leave a tiny mark on the thinking of the restoration brotherhood. I say this because I THINK I am hearing a little more these days about Church as a holy PEOPLE rather than a holy THING. Perhaps this is my imagination. Regardless of how the paper is judged by time to come, I do sincerely believe it has been a voice calling attention to the bottom line. Once upon a time the faith was perceived in terms of one gigantic, world-wide organization -- the Catholic Church. The reformers succeeded in breaking this monolithic monster into a few big chunks. Therefore for many years the faith of Christ was represented mainly by the old mainline Denominations. Later reformers and restorers brought the focus down to the local group of Christians in each community, the congregation. The Examiner has moved the emphasis one step lower. It has argued that the ultimate focus has to be brought down to the INDIVIDUAL disciple! It is the INDIVIDUAl who is the working unit of the faith, not an INSTITUTION. How could this ever have been missed? It is the individual who will be judged, not the institution. Individuals will go to heaven, not institutions. Yes, Christians should be together and "strive TOGETHER for the faith of the gospel." But working together does not transfer responsibility and accountability before God from individuals to institutions. If The Examiner has succeeded in making this point clear, it bas served a good purpose.
Before leaving, in case no one else does, I believe a word of thanks should be extended to Charles A. Holt. (Let it be said also that his wife Jewel deserves more than honorable mention. Everyone knows this, especially Charles.) Many others worked and sacrificed in this effort, but from the outset the paper was his own personal vision and work. He put it together and brought it to pass. Now he is the one who has decided to bring it to an end. This decision is right and wise. I say this not because I wish to see the paper dead and buried at such an early age, but because it has always proven dangerous for religious organizations to be given "external life" here on earth. Organizations can be useful tools. But when organizations outlive their organizers, invariably they end up repudiating their builders and makers. If left in others bands, no doubt this would happen to The Examiner in time. Anyway, for all his faults (believe it or not, he will admit to a few) Charles Holt has performed a good service for the brotherhood in challenging through The Examiner the institutional concept of the ecclesia. For doing this he should be commended even by those who disagree with his conclusions. For he has, by means of this paper, helped FORCE the attention of the brotherhood to the many spiritual issues involved in institutionalized Christianity. He should be, and I believe will be, remembered for this significant contribution. By doing this, however, he has put himself on the front line for the past eight years. Consequently he took a lot of heat. Some of this he may have generated himself due to his direct, abrupt manner of expression. Subtlety has definitely not been his style. But most of it came from those who were terribly upset at the questions he and others raised. Frankly, it is understandable why some have been so angry and antagonistic toward The Examiner and its Editor. Their most cherished beliefs have been criticized and questioned. Perhaps in years to come some who are upset at these ideas now, in retrospect will see more clearly the serious problems of "organized religion" that have been explored in this paper. If this happens, then the efforts of the editor and other "examiners" will not have been a total waste.
During the past few years much has been said in The Examiner about institutional religion and individual faith. This subject matter will continue to require examination as long as institutions and individuals exist. But let us all, writers and readers alike, keep one thing in mind. With or without the help of religious institutions, there is a Final Exam we all must face come judgement day. By the grace of God I hope that we all pass.