Sentry Magazine, December 2001
(Editor's note: I would love to give credit to the author of this excellent piece but there was no name attached to the article. There may have been one on the envelope but when it was detached from the article it became impossible to give proper credit. I wish this were not so. -- Floyd Chapellear)
American Christians are confronted by a society filled with moral and religious decay. Romans 1:18-32 offers an apt description of the process of decay in thought and morality that many have been witnesses to in our culture for the past 50 years. One reaction to the present decadent culture is a nostalgic desire to return to "the way things used to be." A restoration of "traditional morality" is the oft-heard cry of the herald. It is natural to possess a certain longing for the "glory days" when people were generally moral, marriages were monogamous, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse were unthinkable problems.
I would suggest that this is the wrong answer to our "present distress." In fact, the call to return to what one writer has described as "a religion that lives in the past" is an unbiblical call, that pits one flawed culture against another (the '50s versus the '90s if you will). This was the Pharisees' answer to the liberalism among the Jews of their day and it was a substandard solution. Consider ...
Religion that Lives in the Past is Established on Flawed Foundations
There are several examples from brethren in the past that illustrate this. These are not presented to say "we're better" than they, but to recognize the flaws in this model and demonstrate that previous generations were undeniably influenced by the flawed culture of their own day.
A Contentious and Pugnacious Spirit
Recent historical accounts of churches of Christ have chronicled the contentious and factious attitudes that have dominated brethren. A few examples will suffice. On conscientious objectors, Foy Wallace wrote that they were "impractical, misguided, men with a dwarfed conscience ... freak specimens of human nature." His brother Cled wrote similarly, calling them "crackpots" and labeling the doctrine, "a screwy philosophy ... idiotic drivel and unpatriotic rot" (Hughes). During the institutional crisis, W.W. Otey lamented in a publication that, "many subscribers have been alienated and strive stirred ... especially by the spirit of bitterness and even hatred manifested by the disputants." This hateful, bitter, and ungodly spirit continues today in a generation of brethren whose teachings manifest a spirit more akin to a malicious watchdog than the kindness and gentleness to which we are called (Colossians 3:12; 4:6).
Who hasn't witnessed a spirit of strife, dissension, disputes, animosity, and outbursts of anger in a business meeting? Often this is overlooked or even tolerated in the name of "standing for the truth." Yet, these attributes are listed among the works of the flesh in Gal. 5:19-21, right along with drunkenness and fornication. How would we react to a brother attending a business meeting while drunk, or having just committed fornication in the parking lot with one of the sisters? I would venture to say we would not be nearly so tolerable as we are with those who exhibit harshness, bitterness, and a contentious spirit! Nevertheless, these are just as sinful. Come judgment day, it will come as a surprise to some brethren when they discover that bitterness, animosity, grumbling, and a pugnacious spirit are not listed among the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)!
The Scriptures call us to stand for the truth with a spirit of love, peace, gentleness, and kindness (I Timothy 1:5-7; Ephesians 4:15; I Peter 3:15; Galatians. 6:1; Colossians 3:12; 4:6). The tenor of these Scriptures stands in stark contrast to the bitter and pugnacious spirit often exemplified among brethren in past decades that remains alive today.
An Overemphasis on Particular Doctrinal Issues
The gospel proclaimed in the past was often a "reactionary gospel." That is, it was presented in such a way as to counteract false doctrines regarding salvation taught among various denominations. That is perfectly understandable. But this gospel tended to put a premium on what man does while giving only lip service to God's actions. Examples include the following:
Law over Grace
T. W. Brents' Gospel Plan of Salvation is a book that I have benefited from immensely. It is always on my "recommended list" for those who are beginning to build a library. Yet, it is misnamed, because it does not deal with the "gospel plan." It deals with man's response to the gospel. Not a single chapter is devoted to the atonement, the cross, or God's grace. Someone has noted that of the 382 pages devoted to the plan of salvation, 327 are focused on baptism. This is not to fault brother Brents, but to note that we can easily begin to think that this emphasis on man's response (as summarized in the five steps) is the heart of the gospel.
The famous sermon, preached by almost every gospel preacher, the "Marks of the True Church" typically included the following: apostolic, name, no creed, universal, terms of admission, organization, the Lord's supper, government. As one writer noted, it became a sort of "undenominational, denominational creed." Ironically, what is missing in that creed is the mark of God's people, "by this shall all men know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
An Emphasis on the "Church" over Christ
Many have decried the call for "preaching more about Jesus," noting that it is impossible to preach Jesus without doctrine, including the doctrine regarding the church. There will always exist those who desire to teach Christ to the exclusion of doctrine. And, obviously, all the doctrine must be proclaimed if we are to preach Christ. But that does not negate the need for greater emphasis on the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ in our preaching. God chose as the ultimate means of revealing Himself to mankind a Person! "If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father," declares the Lord. Even when Paul speaks about the "manifold wisdom of God" being revealed "through the church," he is ultimately declaring what the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ accomplished in bringing Jew and Gentile together into one body.
There is a personal relationship aspect of the gospel that is missed if we only think of ourselves as being in allegiance to a doctrine or an institution! There are weightier matters (Matthew 23:23), and there is no more weighty matter in the gospel than the Person and sacrifice of the Lord! Indeed it is weightier than the Bible pattern for organization and structure of local congregations! He Himself said, "If I be lifted up I will draw all men to myself." Are doctrinal issues revolving around the church of greater import or a greater drawing power of the gospel message than the death of the Savior on the cross? When I picture the Savior saying, "Father, forgive them," as they are nailing Him to the cross, I am overwhelmed by the Person of Christ and His love! The apostle Paul declared, "I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things ... that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings" (Philippians 3:8,10).
We can talk about the local church and its organization, work, and worship and about the one body vs. many all day long, and we will not have touched on the heart of the gospel, "Jesus Christ and Him crucified!" Are those other items unimportant? No, but neither are they the hub of the gospel!
Racism and Partiality
This is perhaps the most condemnable and disturbing aspect of the heritage within churches of Christ. A pattern of segregation & partiality has dominated the lives of individuals and churches on the basis of race.
Consider these comments:
Foy Wallace: "Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs ... for any woman in the church to so far forget her dignity and lower herself so ... is pitiable indeed" (emphasis his, quoted in Richard T. Hughes', Reviving the Ancient Faith).
Wallace also noted that a commendable black preacher would be one who "knows what his relationships are in the church in the light of his relationships with society" (Hughes).
A. B. Lipscomb: the "new religious and moral status for the Negro element . . . means that we now have better farmhands, better porters, better cooks, better housemaids than ever before" (Hughes).
G. C. Brewer: "None of us thought of inviting Negroes into our homes as guests or of sitting down to eat with them at the same table; we felt, as a matter of course, that they should have the same food that we ate, but that they should eat in the kitchen or in the servants' quarters ... this was the condition that prevailed and this we accepted as right and satisfactory" (G. C. Brewer Hughes).
If this doesn't cause your stomach to chum in disgust, you have a problem, my friend! The attitudes reflected in these statements were not limited to a select few. According to Hughes, "no one protested Wallace's harangue, in print anyway." Indeed, where was the outcry of heresy and condemnation that such attitudes deserved? Where is it now? There still exists the lingering legacy in many cities of segregation between churches on the basis of race. How shameful a legacy it is! My personal experience, while only anecdotal, is useful nevertheless. In the 5 years after I became a Christian, I heard more racial jokes from Christians in the south than I had heard in the 18 years prior to that time, growing up as a Catholic in New York. Even in recent years, I have heard brethren declare, in regard to whom their children should marry, "White people shouldn't marry black people." Quite frankly, that attitude is anathema. We shouldn't care if a person is red, purple, black, blue, yellow, or orange, or all in combination; if they are the best person to help a child of God get to heaven then praise God for their union! Paul declared, "we view no man according to the flesh" (II Corinthians 5:16). James says plainly, "if you show partiality, you are committing sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors" (James 2:9). To Galatians 3:28 "there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," we may rightly add, "there is neither black nor white."
These examples should slam the door shut on any mentality that brethren in the past "arrived at the truth" and all we have to do is maintain their teachings. They serve, instead, to completely undermine any idea that the teachings and beliefs of the past were guided only by the purity of Scripture, and never influenced by culture. Indeed, we are all influenced by culture and the world around us. To say otherwise is delusional and arrogant. "Let him who thinks he stands, take heed ..." (I Corinthians 10:12).
Religion that Lives in the Past Falls Prey to Pharisaic Exclusivity
The Lord rebuked the scribes and Pharisees, "because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in" (Matthew 23:13). One way the Pharisees shut off the kingdom was by confusing what was a "cultural" practice (such as the washing of hands) with Divine revelation and condemning what God did not. There are several ways we can be guilty of the same.
We easily fall prey to the similar notion that changes in culture (be they musical taste, dress styles, hairstyles, jewelry, or even tattoos!) are at the root of moral decay, and so we legislate against such. The same attitude is displayed toward changes in religious practices (changes in worship style; focus in teaching; approaches to sermons; etc.). It is imperative, of course, to stay within the bounds of Scripture. There are songs that undermine biblical morality. Certain dress styles and practices today are immodest, indecent, and may cause others to stumble. And, changes in worship move us "beyond what is written" are heretical. However, this does not mean that all changes in our culture or in our religious practices are wrong, nor does it imply that a return to some previous generation's ideals is the answer to immorality today. Paul warned against this sort of solution that undermines our liberty in Christ (Colossians 2:8, 20-23). The "elementary principles of the world" were religious traditions that were more restrictive than God's law. When brethren seek to restrict what goes on a sign to "church of Christ" or the number of collective assemblies or other matters of worship, or when we condemn clothing or jewelry or other forms of adornment that the Scriptures do not condemn, we shut off the kingdom of heaven.
We may also shut off the kingdom when we seek to justify practices on the basis of what past generations did rather than on what God authorizes. Whenever we begin to condemn modern practices (even those that are sinful) by saying, "We used to do it like this ..." we lose our effectiveness in teaching by appealing to a standard that is human, not Divine, and immediately create an unscriptural barrier to the gospel message.
Furthermore, one can only wonder how many souls have been lost due to the hypocrisy of racial prejudice witnessed among those who call themselves Christians.
The Lord also said of the Pharisees, "They say and do not do." While this has many other, perhaps more vital, applications, do we say we want to restore ourselves to New Testament Christianity, yet base our practices and beliefs on long-held traditions among brethren from previous generations? Recently, I was teaching a class on singing and instrumental music and a brother sought to condemn the use of instruments in worship by appealing to a passage in Amos 5 where God says, "I will not even listen to the sound of your harps ..." This argument dates at least as far back as the late 1800s. The argument rips the statement from its proper context and misuses it. Employing a bad argument to support a correct conclusion undermines the message of the gospel by exposing ourselves to justifiable criticism.
Religion that Lives in the Past Results in Idolatry and Denominational Pride
In II Kings 18:4, Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent that Moses had erected in the wilderness because it had become an idol among the people. They elevated an object of the past to a position never intended by the
Lord. We are guilty of the same when we put our faith in religious forms and practices of past generations. When we begin to believe that our understanding of God and our religious experiences are all there is to know about God we make idols of our understanding. As one author has stated, "An honest desire to think and speak accurately about God moves, too easily, to a presumptuous conviction that our affirmations contain the whole truth about God" (The Trivialization of God). This mentality was a source of the Pharisees' rejection of Jesus. He didn't fit the "idol" of their past understanding, so they rejected Him. They were unwilling to open their minds up to the possibility that they could be wrong or that they might be binding what God had not bound.
How do we handle new teachings? How do we judge teachings that differ from what we've heard in the past or what we've "always believed?" We have several choices: We can be like the Athenians who "spent their time in nothing else but to tell or hear something new" (Acts 17:21). Or we can react as the Pharisees who judged the practices and teachings of the Lord on the basis of whether it fits their prior understanding (Mark 7) and rejected His teaching! Or we can "receive the Word with an eager mind and search the Scriptures daily" as the Bereans did when they were confronted with a "new" teaching from the Apostle Paul. They were willing to investigate carefully and without prejudice the new ideas Paul was presenting to them. When we hold up our own conclusions or those of the past as the standard, we are guilty of a subtle but deadly form of religious idolatry.
Related to this is a denominational pride that creeps in. Just as the Jews during the Lord's walk on the earth were wont to say, "we are Abraham's seed" (Matthew 3; John 8), many Christians manifest a self-justifying pride in their heritage. It is witnessed in an attachment and devotion, not to Christ, but to great teachers of the past; to a brotherhood journal; or to a group of churches called "the church of Christ." Brethren, do not be deluded into thinking that this error is not a serious threat to our faithfulness.
What we need is Biblical restoration. That means individual repentance. It requires poverty of spirit that mourns over our sin and meekly, humbly submits to the rule of Christ. The real solution to problems from the past that haunt us still and to the influences of culture today is to repent in humility and shame and fervently seek to restore ourselves to the Lord. Clinging to the past only allows the flaws of the past to keep us from the Lord, just as the same attitude kept the Pharisees from accepting Him.
True restoration requires the humility to recognize that we are imperfect creatures with an imperfect understanding of a perfect model, relying on the grace and mercy of a perfect Savior. It would serve us well to consider a quotation from John Stott on the church (although I disagree with many of Mr. Stott's doctrines and his understanding of salvation and the nature of the church, his comment is useful nonetheless):
"What do you think of the church? Your answer will probably depend on whether you are thinking about the ideal or the reality. In the ideal, the church is the most marvelous new creation of God. It is the new community of Jesus, enjoying a multi-racial, multinational and multi-cultural harmony that is unique in history and in contemporary society. It is a people who spend their earthly lives (as they will also spend eternity) in the loving service of God and of others. What a noble and beautiful ideal! In reality, however, the church is us (if you will pardon the bad grammar) - a disheveled rabble of sinful, fallible, bickering, squabbling, stupid, shallow Christians, who constantly fall short of God's ideal, and often fail even to approximate it!"
May God have mercy on our imperfections and failures! Indeed part of our problem of holding to a "religion that lives in the past" is due to a mentality that fails to place proper reliance on God's mercy and grace for our salvation. A mentality that believes we are saved because we are right about every issue. A couple of years ago in a private discussion with another preacher, who was quick to condemn everyone who differed with him on various doctrinal issues, I asked him if he thought he was ever mistaken about any doctrinal matters in the past. He agreed that he had been. I then asked if he thought he was lost every time he was mistaken. "Yes," he replied. "And if you are wrong today about some doctrine, are you lost?" Again, his answer was "Yes!" That is the Pharisaical doctrine of salvation.
We must not fail to see that if we are going to be saved ( or if those of generations past were saved) it will not be because we have attained perfection in doctrine or practice, because we never will. To believe otherwise is to manifest pride and arrogance that will in fact condemn us! On the contrary, we will be saved because we strive for perfection (Philippians 3:12-16) and rely on God's grace and mercy to cover our imperfections (I John 1:5-2:1).