Thinking About the Church
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He has made us accepted in the Beloved" (Ephesians 1:3-6).
Even the most casual of Bible students is able to determine that the "us" of Ephesians 1, which as a group has been chosen "in Him before the foundation of the world", has reference to the church of God which Christ "purchased with His own blood" (cf. Acts 20:28). Most Christians are able to give a concise definition of the term "church", derived from the greek term "ekklesia", and referring to the "called out" which are the people of God. Fundamental lessons we learn as babes in Christ allow us to identify the church built by Christ (Matthew 16:18), and to respect its grand design which had its origin in the mind of God "before the foundation of the world."
For example, we recognize that the church, when the term is used in a "universal" sense, has reference to the relationship all who are God's children sustain with Him. We know that entrance into that relationship occurs automatically upon our conversion (cf. Acts 2:47). We recognize the silence of scripture with regard to the activation of the brotherhood, and that the various attempts in times past to do just that have led to widespread apostasy. The gradual formation of the Catholic church, the innovations which led to the formation of the Christian Church denomination and the Institutional issues which divided the people of God a generation ago all had as their point of origin a departure from truth in an attempt to organize and activate the "universal" church.
Careful students recognize that the sole "organization" God has given to the church is in the form of local congregations. "Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Philippians 1:1). "Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints ... " (1 Corinthians 1:1-2a). It is within the framework of the local congregation that the worship we collectively offer to God is given. It is within that framework that the work God gave the church to do in the world is accomplished. It is within that framework that the marking of the unruly, and the encouragement of the "body" is accomplished.
These truths are fundamental, and should be ever before us. We are always in need of instruction with regard to the nature, organization and work of the local church. One of the men who has been widely respected because of his clear and lucid teaching on the subject of the church is brother Robert F. Turner. Brethren have long enjoyed the bulletin Plain Talk, and a regular theme of his writings in that publication was the church. Though the bulletin is no longer published, its voice remains strong and edifying as brethren retain copies and bound volumes of the material written over many years. This writer recently ran across an article which appeared in the July 1966 issue of Plain Talk, entitled "How" the Church Divides. Brother Turner does a fine job in the short article establishing the nature of the church, and refuting some of the false concepts which trouble God's people concerning that blood bought body. Certain parts of that article are reproduced here, and interspersed with this writer's comments regarding issues that confront God's people today.
In paragraphs 4 and 5 of his article, brother Turner warns of the accommodation of terms when speaking of the division of God's people. He writes:
Perhaps a more accurate way to describe such divisions would be to refer to them as apostasies. And, these departures from the truth have troubled the people of God for centuries. Paul warned of such departures when he wrote, "Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth" (1 Timothy 4:1-3). Further, he told Timothy, "O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith. Grace be with you. Amen" (1 Timothy 6:20-21).
Apostasy is a fact, and can be historically documented through the ages. This reality is described very well by brother Turner in the sixth paragraph of his article:
Brother Turner rightly points out that "Our adherence to God's word, both in individual and collective (congregational) matters, is the only true rule of soundness." And yet, there are Christians today who are arraying the autonomy of the local church (a foundational truth of God's word), up against the concept of unity by conformity to the truth of God (another foundational truth). In so doing they claim the two fundamental concepts of God are incompatible! This is not true! It amazes me to hear brethren today equate a call to conformity to the truth of God with sectarianism! The call to conformity has been castigated as a "mental creedalism" and a "new Catholicism". Those faithful brethren who champion that call have been accused of becoming "sectarian in our thinking", and often have had their motives called into question.
Regarding the latter, a few observations are in order. Those at the forefront of the fight against apostasy among God's people have ever been criticized. By now the charges are familiar. "You want to run the brotherhood"; "You have a watchdog mentality"; "You are trying to make a name for yourself;" "Some young preachers have a gunslinger mentality, wanting to 'bring down' an old warrior of truth." I am reminded of a quote from Foy E. Wallace, Jr. regarding criticism he received while fighting the battle against Premillinialism in the church in the 1930's and 1940's. He said:
Please consider that those who make these claims are speaking to motive. How dare they question the heart of those who are teaching the truth! How dare they take a morally "superior" air to those who are actively taking a stand for what is right! Rest assured that those who are militantly standing for truth, in the words of Foy Wallace, "... shall continue to strive to do our whole duty as humbly as we can while "the nations rage and the heathen imagine vain things." We shall not stoop to their plane, neither be deterred by their calumny."
A rather tame example of this unwarrented criticism can be found in a quote from brother Bob Owen, transcribed from a sermon preached in Temple Terrace, FL in September of 1993. It is reproduced here, as it shows very clearly that motives are being questioned for the very fact that the actions being taken can't be successfully criticized. Owen says:
First, you may note that this author agrees with the statement brother Owen makes that God "organized us in local congregations". That much has been established by the preceding paragraphs of this article. You might also make note of the fact that brother Owen and others who are critical of many at the forefront of controversy are themselves going "hither, thither and yon, at opportunity and preach (-ing) the gospel, and try (-ing) to preach the same things everywhere." So why, when other men do the same thing, (and call for conformity to the truth based upon such passages as 2 John 9-11; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10, 3:1-4) are they accused of "spend (-ing) their time and effort directing the brotherhood as opposed to simply preaching the truth." Why is it that the preaching of some is characterized as "simply preaching the truth", and the preaching of others is "directing the brotherhood." Brethren, can we not see that these comments speak to motive?
I only know my own heart. However, I have a great deal of confidence in the integrity and spirituality of many who are unduly enduring harsh criticism from others regarding their integrity and motives. As Foy Wallace said, "I have never felt disposed to debate my own character" (ibid). Might I supply another possible motive for the actions of those who are preaching the truth plainly, exposing false teachers, and defending the integrity of God's word? Could it be that they are motivated by a protective love for God, His truth, and His people? You don't think so? Well, "Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls" (Romans 14:4).
Brethren, an apostasy is brewing. Local congregations are being affected. Preachers are going "hither, thither and yon" and preaching error. They are hiding behind the biblical concept of autonomy, distorting this grand principle established by God and using it to further their pernicious cause. Those who speak out against this error are being falsely charged with "meddling" and trying to "run things." As brother Wallace in the battle against the speculatists of his day, so we will assert, "We shall not stoop to their plane, neither be deterred by their calumny. They shall not pass!"
You are exhorted to heed the admonition of brother Turner, written almost 32 years ago:
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