Is "How?" Really the Question?
I live in Limestone, County, Alabama. To many of you, that means absolutely nothing. To others, it has some ring of significance as many have heard of this county and the county seat of Athens. There are over fifty "non-institutional" churches of Christ meeting in this county, which is the smallest county in the State of Alabama. To say the least, this is an unusual circumstance. Just before I moved to this county, I received sage advice from two gospel preachers I admire and respect: Harold Comer, who has a statistic on everything you may want to know and probably some you may not want to know; and Donald Townsley, a great man, firm in the word and valiant in its defense. Harold warned me to beware of the multiplicity of the churches and the predictable "church hopping" that occurs in this area. Donald had a more stern warning. He advised me to be aware of the fact that the institutional battle had never really been fought here. I accepted his words with respect, but questioned in my own mind if he really knew whereof he spoke. After 2.5 years in Limestone County, Donald Townsley proved to be much more wise than I ever gave him credit for being. Institutionalism was never dealt with here due to the fact that most all the preachers in this area 50 years ago stood on the truth, and the churches remained uninformed on the intricacies of the issues. I am sure that few are as concerned with Limestone County church history as I might be, but my point is that unless we deal with these issues, and understand them fully, we are doomed to repeat the failures of our friends who are now so entrenched in liberalism and are so totally unaware that they are.
In 1990, some forty plus preachers met in a Dallas, Texas hotel meeting room and discussed again the issues that have divided brethren for more than forty years concerning the work of the church. I have specific reference to the issues of institutionalism, congregational cooperation, and issues regarding the involvement of the local church in realms of social entertainment. I attended that meeting and was amazed at the contentions of so many that call themselves conservative. They, like so many in this area of the country, cry out for a conservative hermeneutic, protest loud and long the use of the musical instrument in the worship services, but fail to see that their own inconsistency is what has produced the ultra liberal voices in the church today, i.e.. Max Lucado et.al. Men like Joe Van Dyke, Jim Bevis, Rubel Shelly, Jim McGuiggan, and all their disciples are applying practically the hermeneutic of non-binding authority of examples in the New Testament. There is a growing crowd that wants to disassociate itself from anything traditional, including the designation, "church of Christ." When you reduce the debate on orphan homes, fellowship halls, gymnasiums, "The Herald of Truth," medical missions, and "One Nation Under God" to a question of "How?", you have, in effect, cast out the true hermeneutic of the Bible.
The establishment of a human institution, either built, maintained or sponsored by the local church, to do the work of the church, is not answering the question of "How?" The question being answered there is "Who?" Who takes care of the widow indeed (1 Timothy 5:16)? Is it the church or is it the nursing home? The construction of a nursing home is not "how" the church does its work. It is the assigning of another "who" to do the work God has assigned the church to do. In the Lord's story of the good Samaritan, you have one man buying the service of an inn to care for another man. We are told today that this teaches us that the church can build a hospital in Africa to provide for the health care of a starving people. Noble and sincere are the motives of those who desire to feed the starving masses, I am sure, but the question of Jesus rings true, when, in Matthew 21:25, speaking of the authority of John to baptize, he asks, "...where was it (the authority to act) from? From heaven or from men?" In the application of a consistent hermeneutic, where is the authority for any church to involve itself in such an endeavor?
To elaborate just a bit more on Matthew 21, observe the situation. The Lord was asked, Matthew 21:23, "Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, 'By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?'" That is a legitimate question. It is a question that we all need to ask ourselves any time we go to do something. Consider, if you will, another situation in another time. Exodus 5:1-2, "Afterward Moses and Aaron went in and told Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD God of Israel: "Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness."' And Pharaoh said, 'Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go.'" You and I would have and should have done the very same thing. The children of Israel were the backbone of Pharaoh's economy, and one of their own comes in ordering him around based on the supposed order of some god that the king did not know, what other response would we think proper? Who is this god? "Who is the Lord?" Moses had to answer that question with ample evidence to demonstrate His power in order to accomplish the desired task of the Lord. Eventually the people were released.
When the Lord was asked about His authority, He validated the question by responding to it with another question, which was merely a rewording of the original inquiry. In the whole conversation, not once did Jesus say, "You have no right to question my authority! I am doing a 'good work'. " Jesus understood the necessity for divine authority and He commanded the same. In His response, Matthew 21:24-25, "But Jesus answered and said to them, 'I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John -- where was it from? From heaven or from men?'" Can we not see that He could have plugged any issue or any practice in the place of the baptism of John? Could we not do the same and should we not? Baptism for the remission of sins....where is it from? From heaven or from men? Instrumental music in worship....where is it from? From heaven or from men? The construction or support of a human institution to do the work God assigned the church....Where is it from? From heaven or from men? The provision of social recreation by the church for its members....where is it from? From heaven or from men? The list goes on and on, so that 1 Peter 4:11 becomes all that we need, "If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen." Couple that with, Colossians 3:17, "And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." With these two verses along with the example of Jesus, we have the pattern of demanding Bible authority for all that we do.
When a church, like Highland in Abilene, Brown Trail in Fort Worth, Edmond in Oklahoma, or Cookeville in Tennessee, decides to do some "great" evangelistic work ("The Herald of Truth" TV & radio program, "The Truth in Love" TV program, "Search" TV program, and "One Nation Under God" cartoon distribution program), who is it that will do the work? We are told that all the churches should send money to these "sponsoring churches" to allow them to do the work? Whose work is it? Again, the question is not "How?" but "Who?" And again, the question of authority must be addressed. Where is the authority for such endeavors?
The problem with all these "programs" is that the devisors of all such things fail to see the real intent of the Lord in building the church in the first place. Matthew 16:18, "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." The Lord's promise to build the church had a direct relationship to its purpose: to save men from death. The bold and authoritative mission of the blood bought body for which Jesus died is to carry the good news of salvation to a lost and dying world. That is its purpose, pure and simple. It, the church, has adjunct duties, but they are very limited. In the execution of joint work and worship, the church has an obligation to build up the body. We call that edification. On rare occasions, and there is biblical pattern for those occasions, catastrophes happen to God's children that necessitate the church getting involved in the physical relief of its own. Never is the church activated in the pages of the New Testament to care for anyone but other Christians. Such is an individual duty which every Christian shares equally, "according to their ability" (2 Corinthians 8:3). The church in Antioch, Syria (Acts 11:27-30) sent to the relief of the famine stricken saints in the region of Judea, an example of one church sending to several churches in the area of benevolence. Some ten years later, Paul instructed churches all over Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia to send a contribution to the poor saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-27; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8:3-5; 2 Corinthians 9:1-3; 12-14). This was done, Paul said, 2 Corinthians 8:14, "but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack -- that there may be equality." Again, never was there ever any intention to burden the church with the relief of those who know not God. The only relief they are due from the church is the relief of the teaching of the gospel of Christ, God's power to save their souls. When we, like the Samaritan Jesus taught us about, have the opportunity to help a beaten man or to house ("visit" - James 1:27) a widow or a fatherless child, we cannot escape our individual duty to perform that good work. Such work is good, not due to our opinion on the matter, but as it has been revealed in the Book of God.
The sad part about the current state of affairs in the church of our Lord is that we have raised up a generation of people who know not the nature of the controversy that continues to divide the church. Even worse, we have a multitude of preachers who refuse to deal with these issues any more. Brethren, the fight with the evil influence of the Devil in dividing God's people is not over. The war rages on. When, in Florence, Alabama, at the International Bible College, they have a section of a class on Bible authority they call a study of "Anti-ism," the war rages on. When a church like the "Magnolia Church of Christ" in Florence, Alabama clings to that name, though it is nothing more than a denomination among denominations and meets with denominations in common worship, you know the war rages on. When hosts of preachers decry a "new hermeneutic" then call the building of a "fellowship hall" or a gymnasium simply "bad judgment," you can see where the war is to be fought. We must cling to the good ways of the old paths. We must know the enemy and be ready always to give an answer to every one who asks a reason for our hope. We have preachers today who refuse to give an answer when asked. We have others who are unable to give the answer. As we have raised a generation who know nothing of the institutional controversy, that ignorance extends to the ability to defend the truth. It is not enough to despise liberalism. We must know why.
Jesus prayed and Paul commanded unity among the believers on Jesus. The purpose of unity is to show the world who Jesus is (John 17:20-21). Let us cease this senseless pursuit of the sensual, and be about the business of preaching the gospel.
Is "How?" Really the Question?
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