Many years ago, even before men like Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, or any other American Restoration Movement leader said it; and even before the “Paulicans” in Britain and France circa A.D. 500-1200, there were men calling those who would follow Christ to follow only the Scriptures as their guide for life, congregational organization, and worship. Clement of Rome wrote to the Church in Corinth (A.D. 96) about some infighting they were having and quoted from Old Testament and from the letters of Paul emphasizing that inspired writing (including what would eventually make up most of what we call the New Testament) is the only authority. Can we still call for the same approach? Can we make our attempts at drawing near to God based simply on what He tells us. Can we for a moment forget tradition and paradigm? Will you help me “Go Back to the Bible?” Will you and I “search the Scriptures” for the validity or rejection of what everyone (including me) is saying?
We are fighting each other. We fight over worship styles, calling one “Contemporary” and the other “Traditional.” We fight over the use or non-use of musical accompaniment to singing. We fight over leadership roles and service roles for men and women in the church. Church A does things one way and Church B does something completely different. Church A writes Church B off as “Liberal” since they have obviously “left the Faith.” Church B looks at Church A as “Traditional” since they have not progressed as to the spiritual level of “Freedom in Christ.” And BOTH congregations pull passages of scripture to defend their practices – sometimes they pull them out of context. When studying for ministry and preaching, we learned the danger of eisegesis over exegesis, but somewhere along the line, we forget those lessons and proof-text our preconceived or preferred ideas and practices. Once we form our opinions and go to the scriptures to defend ourselves, we have weapon against those who would dare to disagree or challenge us. Brothers and sisters, this is not the way we should be. We should discuss our differences, but with civility, no with love! Did not Jesus say, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Joh 13:35)? Did not John himself reiterate that point in his letters (1Jo 2:9-11; 3:10-12, 14-15; 4:7-12, 19-21)?
We are fighting because we forgot the concept of autonomy. Autonomy is not a word found in the Bible, but I believe the concept is. As Paul and others established congregations of disciples (Christians) they would later return or send others who would help each congregation set up a plurality of congregational leaders known as presbyters or elders. Through the apostles God gave these men the authority to oversee the congregation where they were leaders. Paul tells the elders of the congregation at Ephesus to “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Act 20:28). Whereas the Apostles had authority over congregations as inspired men (remember the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15), I find no reason to believe that oversight of multiple congregations passed to others after the last apostle died. We have the right and responsibility to express our concerns, but not to oversee other assemblies or force them to comply with our paradigms or perceived doctrines. When we attempt to exercise control by manipulation, threats, accusations, etc. we are in danger of setting ourselves up as a regional “Bishop.” And in danger of repeating the mistakes of would be church leaders, Apostolic Fathers, and apologists of the Second and Third Centuries A.D. Can we authentically return to the New Testament as our guide for life, congregational leadership, and worship?
May I remind all parties of what James, the brother of our Lord said? “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel . . .” (Jam 4:1-2). We fight each other out of selfish desire. We want to be the one who is right. We want to be the one who controls what others say and do. We want recognition as a scholar or as a spiritual person. We want the world to see us as tolerant and open-minded. We want to stay unique from the world. We want to meet our wants and desires. (i.e. Brother C likes a-capella worship and Brother D desires musical accompaniment so “C” finds scripture to prove “D” wrong and “D” finds scripture to prove himself right. But neither wants to sit and have a loving open discussion, so they hurl scriptures and insults at each other like arrows from a bow, bullets from a rifle, or “smart” bombs with deadly accuracy.) That IS NOT brotherly love. We must return to our first love – Christ and learn to love each other again. Before we publicly take our brother to task, should we not remember the commands of our Savior, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Mat 18:15)? Instead of a public reprimand, take time for a personal email or better yet a visit. Remember Paul tells us, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (Gal 6:1). Go in person, go in gentleness, go with a spirit of love and concern. We must not forget the simple rule that our Lord told His followers to live by, a rule we refer to as golden, that rule that says to think about how we want others to treat us and then treat people that way (Mat 7:12). Before we rake a brother or sister over the coals, we must take a deep look at ourselves and ask ourselves probing questions about our motivation for doing so.
When we decide our motivation is pure, James gives us the process for peace. “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (Jam 4:11-12). Do not speak evil of each other. Do not call each other names. Do not accuse each other of being something they are not. Do not go back to Kindergarten and be a tattle-tale trying to get someone in trouble. Do not do it! Do not judge. I know this is a misunderstood or at least misapplied word. Maybe a better word in our current culture is condemn. Do not condemn. You may disagree with someone, but since you are not inspired, you must let God sort somethings that are not specific in Scripture. We can let them know that we disagree with them and that we believe they are misleading others, and still refuse to condemn them to Hell for that belief. There may come a time when specific fellowship and cooperation can no longer occur because of different conclusions,but even then you can still love each other, albeit from a distance.
Currently, there are too many articles in print and online where we are devouring each other. There are too many mean-spirited comments on posts and blogs even when the original posts appears to result from love for the Church Christ died for and for the lost that the Gospel calls.
The blogs, posts, and comments that prompted this article are breaking my heart. I am hurt, when I see people fighting instead of honest dialogue. I cry when I see fellowships, congregations, and families torn apart because we treat each other selfishly and not out of love. I weep when I think of how the accuser is laughing in delight when he sees the influence we have for Christ destroyed by our actions. Please join me in prayer for forgiveness for the times I act out or speak out of selfishness not considering others before myself, for forgiveness for the harm such a self-centered mentality causes the Christ’s Church, and as I pray that we meet to study together the will of God to continually search out how we can best be His people in a modern world.
This article does not look at the specific issues, others are already covering the issues and with better scholarship than I might have. So now as we move along to read the studies and conclusions of other sinners in need and relying on the Grace of God, may we each keep our eyes on God’s will and not our own. May we each learn to live Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, ” . . . nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” (Mat 26:39b). May we set aside old traditions and new paradigms and sincerely follow the teachings of the God-breathed Text all while patiently allowing others the freedom to learn and grow at their own pace (1Th 5:14) until we all reach the goal of perfect Christ-likeness (Phi 3:13, 1Co 13:12; 2Co 3:18; 1Jo 3:2) when He reveals Himself from Heaven to claim His own.