Let's Talk About the Church
Many people approach some philosophical difference with another by using the very non-productive means of name-calling. We see it in politics all the time. When a proponent of some public policy is shunned, it is surmised that the opponent is either a radical, a communist, a fascist, a fundamentalist member of the religious right, or, perish the thought, someone who listens to Rush Limbaugh. In religion, we do the same thing, but with far more meaningful consequences. An opponent is either a liberal, or an anti, or a new one to me, a member of a cult.
I heard recently of a student, while attending Bob Jones University, a conservative Baptist college in South Carolina, who, when seeking permission to leave campus, was denied the privilege. The reason for the denial was that his destination was the services of a local church of Christ. The rationale of the administration in their denial was that the Church of Christ is a cult. To the credit of the student, he went anyway. (Acts 5:29; We ought to obey God rather than men.) Disagree with us as you will, but is this charge justified? I think not.
A cult is generally defined as a group which religiously follows the whims of a charismatic leader. The term is altogether negative. The charge that the Lords church is a cult is intended to be a slam against what we believe, teach and practice. Cult members are usually held in the cult against their will. Views of the cult leaders are usually extreme, radical and outside the standard usually accepted by society.
To some of these charges, we must plead guilty. To some, absolutely not. Though members of some local congregations have sold themselves to follow the direction of a preacher or a group of elders, such is not done blindly or against their will. It is just more convenient to let somebody else make the decisions. No true church of Christ ever holds any member against their will. The opposite is usually the case. Most churches of which I am familiar have trouble keeping their members. Alas, that is not the issue.
The problem that the BJU people have with the church of Christ is that it teaches something they cannot abide, the Bible. Jesus Christ has all authority (Matthew 28:18). His plan of salvation is clear (Acts 2:38, Mark 16:15-16). It is not the same plan that Baptists teach. The New Testament teaches a system of congregational organization (Acts 14:23, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:5) that few churches are willing to heed. Within the structure of this organization is a pattern of internal discipline that men do not understand (Romans 16:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 1 Corinthians 5:4-7). We have no earthly head, therefore, no headquarters from which he would rule. We are simply Christians. What are you?
With all of that said, however, affirming a negative does not really get much of anywhere, though sometimes it serves a limited specific purpose. A more appropriate purpose is to identify and affirm a positive proposition. That affirmative assertion will be the goal of this article. What IS the church of Christ?
Though we have a very good article which appears in each issue of The Watchman which answers this question, there are some other issues to be addressed along that line.
The simple answer to that question is that the church of Christ is the blood bought body of all saved people belonging to Christ Jesus, the Son of God. Though that simple answer is accurate, it is not the kind of answer that practicalizes the situation we seek to address. There is a problem today with people trying to make the church something it is not, and, therefore, have the church doing things it ought not, as there is no biblical authority for the activity. If we understand what the church is, then it will be easier to define the divine work the church has been assigned to accomplish.
The first attribute of the church that is vital in any such discussion is to recognize that the church is "of Christ." The name church of Christ is not arbitrary. It is scriptural. It describes the fact that the people who comprise the church are indeed "of Christ." Jesus said, "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" (Matthew 16:18). The church is His. It is of His design, His plan, His Father's eternal purpose. Jesus purchased the church by shedding His own blood for it, giving His life that it may come into existence. In Ephesians 3:9-11, Paul explains that his preaching was "...to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord." Also we learn from Paul's mouth, as he was speaking to the Ephesian elders as they gathered in the city of Miletus, "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). The church, then, belongs to Christ. It has no human origin. It righteously wears no other man's name. Everything about it centers around its supreme benefactor, Jesus Christ.
We also learn from Paul in his Ephesian correspondence that the church is the body of Christ. Speaking of the position of Jesus Christ, Paul says that God placed Him "far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:21-23). The same language is used in a similar letter written to the saints in Colosse (Colossians 1:18 & 24). So, the body of Christ and the church of Christ speak of the same thing. They are identical.
That determination is important in that a body functions in unity. No properly functioning body, taking directions from its head, is going in a different direction than that which the head directs. In fact, it does nothing without the head's knowledge and approval. Unity of this sort is a unity that goes beyond simple agreement. It emphasizes unity of purpose, unity of service, unity of THOUGHT, not just in practice. That may seem odd to some readers, but consider the words of Paul, in Philippians 2:3-5, "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus." It is not enough to DO Bible things in Bible ways without the use and determination of the MIND. People today are proclaiming a "unity in diversity" which is grossly unscriptural. "Agreeing to disagree" or "fellowship among differences" is not what the Lord sought when he prayed to the Father, John 17:20-21, "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me." Certainly we do not address differences within expediencies or liberties, but practices are being accepted today in areas of doctrine that cannot be overlooked. Jesus expects those who wear His name to be united in MIND, JUDGMENT and DOCTRINE. 1 Corinthians 1:10, "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment."
That brings us to the principle that when we speak of the church doing anything, we must know who or what is acting. The church is made up of people. In our simple definition, we said that the church is all saved people. The historian of the early church tells us, "And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47). The Lord adds saved people to the church. He has been doing it ever since the church began. People who comply with the Lord's terms of salvation are said to be saved, and as such, are added to the church of Christ. What other church would He add the saved people to? Is there any reason to suspect that He would add them to another church? Would He add saved people to a church that did not identify itself as being a church of His? Would he add saved people to a church that took its direction and plan for work and worship from any other source than what He had directed? The answer to all these questions is obvious. He determines who is saved, and He determines who is, therefore, added to His church.
The problem people have today is in making the distinction between a local church and the church we have been describing. There are numerous reference to the church in a local sense (1 Corinthians 1:2; Philippians 1:1; Galatians 1:2, et. al.) Local churches are not little universal churches. The unit in the universal church is not the local church. The functional unit in describing saved people is the individual Christian. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). We are saved or lost on our individual faith and obedience to the Lord's terms. Our local church identity is one of geography. We congregate together with others in our communities to form local churches, just as they did in Corinth, Colosse, Philippi, Lystra, Derbe, etc. The local church receives direction from the Lord as to how it is to operate, be organized and function. That direction has caused many to stumble in their understanding of the church and its work. Christians have individual duties that do not affect or involve the local church. These must remain separate from those shared responsibilities in the local church relationship.
Many today want to separate the church from the plan of salvation. Others want to make the church the harbor for any and all who confess anything about Jesus Christ. Neither is right in God's sight. One cannot separate the plan from the Man. God's eternal plan called for the church to be built on the sacrifice of the Christ, God's own Son. That church has been in existence for some 2,000 years. It is distinctive in its doctrine, its practices and its fellowship. Christians all over the world are added to it daily according to God's plan. Those of us who have been so added have a job to do in maintaining the unity the Lord demanded, not just in practice, but in our thinking and in our determination.
We have such a desire in our society to get along, we just go along with whatever comes down the road. James has a description of such behavior and the people who adhere to that behavior. "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind." (James 1:5-6). If we are so limp in our faith so as to follow any and every charismatic leader, we are doubters and certainly fit into James' despicable description of a man.
Have we found in the scripture what no one else could find before this modern era? Is the universal church activated in some way in executing any collective work? Is the local church seen anywhere in the Word doing more or being commanded to do more than evangelize, edify and relieve needy saints? Is the local church now charged to do more than it is inherently capable of doing? Is any individual so commanded? "For if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have" (2 Corinthians 8:12).
There are many practical issues to which these principles apply.
Human institutionalism is a work outside the bounds of Bible authority and goes beyond the approval of God. "Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son" (2 John 9, NASB). Modernists tell us that we do not need authority for everything we do "in religion" or in the church. Our so-called "liberal brethren", (I wonder why we feel like we have to coddle these reprobates when they have done everything in their power to obliterate the work and worship of the church for which Jesus shed His precious blood.), tell us that these institutions, though not found in any form in the scriptures, are justified as an expedient. Have you not heard that an expedient must first be lawful? (1 Corinthians 10:23). "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" (Colossians 3:17). It reads very clear to me that ANY activity in which Christians are to engage themselves, either individually or collectively, must have the approval of the Lord. Matthew 7:21-23, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!' " Lawlessness or iniquity is defined as action without authority. If we could find some degree of institutionalism in the word of God, we could sanction its validity as being the doctrine of Christ. The fact is that we cannot find the command, the example, or some way to draw such a conclusion that it is scriptural.
Add to this discussion the use of instrumental music in worship to God, the social gospel, the sponsoring church arrangement, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Isn't it nice that we still have liberals to pick on after all these years? Have we antis stayed clean? Do we have a few skeletons in our closet that need to be brought out and addressed? Certainly such exist or this publication would never have been born. Has anybody among us antis engaged in a discussion with a liberal lately without having our MDR problems thrown in our face? They reason, and accurately I surmise, that if we can fellowship a false teacher on the subject of adultery, we should be able to fellowship one we believe to be in error on institutionalism! If Romans 14 covers every degree of human behavior that men seek to have it cover, why not throw in the kitchen sink and accept those folks in South Carolina who say we are a cult? If you have not seen or heard Larry Hafley's sermon on the "Elastic Gospel" from the Baytown Lectures from a few years ago, you need to get it and pay close attention to it. We are on the brink of an apostasy just like they were in the 1940's when local church autonomy was just beginning to be compromised. What will we accept? How elastic is the gospel? Just because we have managed to keep out the instrument, what have we done? Just because we have kept the orphan home or the college out of the budget of the local church, what have we done? Just because we have no "bus ministry" or church kitchen or fellowship hall or gymnasium, what have we done? If we take all those right positions and then tolerate fluff in our pulpits on such matters as divorce and remarriage and fellowship, what have we accomplished? If we are not busy preaching the whole counsel of God, we are nothing.
Let's talk about the church. God's people need to be warned that we are in a fight with the devil and the devil is winning. Apathy and ignorance keep us from waging the war that needs to be fought and won. We must eradicate both from within our ranks. May God help us in our noble battle for truth.
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