Church? What is it to you?
I ask these questions and challenge our thinking in the context of the churches of Christ, a fellowship I have enjoyed for almost a decade now. I have come to know and appreciate some of the most dedicated, humble servants of Jesus Christ I have known anywhere, and as in every group, some folks not so desirable.
It is common to hear someone say to another of a mutual acquaintance “He is a member of the church” or “She was not a member of the church”. This is not uncommon phrases but it takes on a different meaning than if spoken by a Baptist or a Methodist. In the circles in which I travel it almost always means not the body of Christ but more narrowly, the Church of Christ. And to make things more complicated many CoC people believe the body of Christ and the Church of Christ are one and the same.
Many of our folks will add the words “The Lord’s…” before church. This way of conveying the same thought makes it more definite what is intended, at least to other CoC people.
The inevitable end of this line of logic is that every other group on earth who claim to be followers of Jesus are not a part of “The Lord’s church” or the “True church” and are something other than genuine Christians.
Ideas about what others who claim to be Christians are ranges from “false prophets”, “lost sinners” to a kinder and gentler “in error” and “seekers”. And, there is the rather odd and completely unscriptural idea that some people are sort of saved, but not completely. You can never get anyone to say it this clearly but it is certainly what is implied. The truth is, one either has eternal life or he doesn’t. You know, either Becky is pregnant or she isn’t. Or a better illustration is either Uncle John is dead or he is alive, there is no in between.
Followers of Jesus are called in the Bible “disciples”, “the way”, “believers”, and as a group “the church”, “the church of God”, “the assembly of God”, “the church of the firstborn, “the body of Christ”, and “the Bride of Christ”. These terms all are descriptions of the sum total of all believers in most cases.
There are also references to the earthly representations of the one body, local churches. They are mentioned as being tied to geographical areas or cities. Then there are those identified by the person who owned the house where they met.
I think it would be good if we (Church of Christ people) agreed on these facts.
Church of Christ, and other Restoration Movement groups are not the only ones saved. Remember the old phrase “We are only Christians but not the only Christians“? The RM fathers ideal was to unify ALL believers into one church. How could that have been a worthy goal if all the others were lost?
Every member of every Church of Christ is not saved. EVERY member of EVERY church would need to be saved for some of our outrageous statements to be true. I recently read a blog where the author was trying to make the case that only Church of Christ members are saved. That is a tough assignment!
The “church”, the universal body of Christ which includes all redeemed people from every age, is not the same as the local churches. The exact reason is that there are tares growing with the wheat. There are impostors who are no more than actors. Only believers are in the body of Christ, not make believers!
Perhaps the most odd, and the most compelling, evidence that people who embrace the sectarian idea that only their group is saved comes to us courtesy of many of our most “conservative” Church of Christ preachers.
They will quickly tell you that only those in “the Lord’s Church”, (the churches of Christ) are going to heaven. These same men will then insist that so and so Church of Christ is lost because they have musical instruments accompany singing on Sunday morning. And, there are perhaps dozens of other sins that will send a whole congregation of “The Lord’s Church” to hell, like raising your hands in worship, women speaking in church, serving communion from the rear of the auditorium rather than the front, having a kitchen, and teaching anything that brother Holier-than-thou disagrees with.
How can Church of Christ people be the only ones saved and at the same time some of them be lost? It is rather confusing isn’t it. The glaring problem for the people who teach such nonsense is that it cannot be defended in any coherent way.
What so you think?
In the last several months there have been several dozen blog posts and articles in coC journals about the decline both of the number of churches and membership. The Christian Chronicle has done a good job of examining the raw data available and raising some relevant questions as to why this trend is real.
I have read letters to the editor, blog posts, and listened to on line sermons, each with some suggestion about how to stop the downward spiral. Most of what I have read only touches upon symptoms and does not address the heart of the problem.
Last night I listened to a message preached by John McCord to his people at the El Campo church of Christ in El Campo, Texas. I invite you to listen to this young man’s sermon. John McCord is one example of a preacher who has decided to no longer facilitate the falsehood of legalistic teaching. This is an example of someone with the courage to bring ethics into the pulpit along with his Bible.
All of the hand wringing and ideas about how to be more relevant, develop better programs, and become more attractive to our communities are all exercises in futility unless the root of the problem is addressed. Shoddy and sometimes even dishonest Bible scholarship is our greatest problem.
The recent uproar about 21st Century Christian not including congregations in their directory that had one or more instrumental service on Sunday highlighted a shocking truth. Today, almost 25% of the members of churches of Christ in the United States attend a congregation which has at least one service on Sunday where singing is accompanied by musical instruments.(I am sure there are others the keepers of the gate to heaven have not discovered yet) This is not the problem. The awful truth is that many of the remaining 75% don’t believe the 25% is going to heaven because they have the dreaded “instrument”. This undeniable fact gets at the root of the decline of the numbers of congregations and members. Many educated, thinking people simply dismiss this sort of nonsense as silly and either move on to some other church of Christ or quietly leave the church tradition of their ancestors.
Why should we expect people to be drawn to or stay in a church that teaches you are in danger of hell fire if you don’t agree with what they teach, and what they teach can’t be supported by the Bible? Almost every member of our churches has a computer at home and within a few clicks of a mouse they can tap into the wisdom of trusted theologians on any given subject and quickly decide if a teaching is Biblical or a myth.
We must devote ourselves to honest interpretation of the scriptures and lay aside the traditions of men if they are not valid. Each of us will do so at great risk but it is worth the effort. Christian discipleship is not for the thin skinned and faint of heart. If you set out to be loyal only to Christ and the word of God you will become the target of zealots whose security is not in Christ but rather in what they do, the system they have endorsed, and the religion they are committed to.
To be what God wants us to be, without regard to the numbers or our critics, we must get back to the basics of the Christian faith. We must become a people of the Word whose lives have the flavor of an authentic, vibrant faith relationship with Jesus Christ. Every area of our lives should reflect our devotion to the Son of God and our unconditional surrender to His will. We must become known as people who love each other unconditionally, who hold each other accountable, who look out for the interests of others, and whose mission on earth is to make Christ known.
True disciples of Jesus are known by how they love. They are not known by how they worship, by what sign is over the door where they worship, or by what their church history is.They are known by loving each other and by loving even their enemies and by so doing loving God.
We must stop pretending we have it all right and everyone else is wrong. We must stop being church centered and become Christ centered. It is high time the Restoration Movement churches are restored to the faith of our fathers without all the trappings of man made religion. It is a life or death matter.
The headline in the latest on line edition of the Christian Chronicle is “Church in America in decline”. According to the article churches of Christ numbers are the lowest since 1980 when such stats began to be compiled. The Chronicle states:
“In the newly released directory, 21st Century Christian identifies 12,629 a Capella Churches of Christ with 1,578,281 adherents nationwide.
Those figures represent 526 fewer churches and 78,436 fewer people in the pews than just six years ago.”
I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this decline. One that I believe is at the heart of the problem is this. The time frame referenced in the article closely corresponds to the birth and expansion of the Internet, the “Information Age” if you will.
For most of it’s history, Restoration Movement congregations, especially churches of Christ, received their doctrine/theology almost completely from the guy in the pulpit, from elders, and both groups gathered most of their instruction in truth from “brotherhood”journals. The sphere of the church (coC) was relatively small. A few members visited lectureships, summer camps and work shops, but there too, they likely got a recycled version of what they had already heard. Most all of the information available was exclusively coC.
Suddenly, in the span of a few short years, almost every family had a PC connected to the world wide web. The information available was astounding! Now, those same folks who had lead sheltered lives religiously were now exposed to other views of Bible teaching and theology. The “brotherhood” journals which had been the principal source of instruction from outside the local community was in a very short time relegated to only fraction of what the family on the pew read.
As church members have been exposed to more views, more Bible teaching, they were challenged to rethink why they believed some of what they had been taught and began to think for themselves. The more isolated a group is the easier it is to keep them under the iron thumb of legalism and error.
The sectarianism of the past several decades is regularly being rejected and more and more coC members are embracing the ideals and passion of the RM founders like Alexander Campbell who coined the phrase “Christians only, but not the only Christians”. Tens of thousands of people have studied themselves out of sectarian bondage and legalism and are now grace filled and grace giving people. Some of them are in more “progressive” churches, some have gone to some other brand, and some are toughing it out where they are, but their children are long gone and aren’t coming back.
Another reason for the decline is the glaring foolishness of people like 21st Century Christian’s brilliant idea to purge churches like North Richland Hills from the directory because they have instruments “in one or more services”. They are evidently no longer considered a church of Christ because they don’t tow the party line. This is exactly the kind of narrow minded, shoddy Bible scholarship many people are running away from in large numbers.
Meanwhile the church fathers are wringing their hands trying to figure what the problem is. I have a news flash! Churches that are growing by winning new converts are making a big fuss about Jesus! So long as churches of Christ major on other topics and minor on Jesus they will continue to swirl down to extinction and they deserve to do so.
I have looked at sermon topics of dozens and dozens of churches on their websites and a Capella singing, the church of Christ, baptism, the church of Christ, the error of the denominations, the church of Christ, and many other topics take precedence over teaching about the Christ.
Will there be a revival of love for Jesus Christ and the desire to be in unity with believers of every stripe which was the plea and ideal of the early Receptionist’s? It isn’t looking good. The vast majority of those who fill the pews in churches of Christ on Sunday morning are like me. They have gray hair, are either retired or near retirement age, and they are not bothered very much by the sound of young children in the assembly. Two generations from today, perhaps three, and most of those folks will be buried. Who will replace them? I hope revival comes, but I am not hopeful.