Would We Recognize Trends Which Point to an Apostasy?
by Floyd Chappelear
Sentry Magazine, March 2001
I have been attending churches of Christ for more than fifty years. I have been preaching the gospel for more than forty of them. I do not think it presumptuous to suggest that I know what I am talking about.
The things that point to apostasy are not those which brethren frequently point to. For instance: Brethren have differed on marriage/divorce/remarriage for as many years as I can remember. They will continue to do so. There has been no complete agreement on immodest apparel, and never will be. The covering question continues to trouble people. We could go on and on in this vein, and name issues that have forever bothered the saints and none of them have led to apostasy in the real sense.
What is it that leads to the apostasy of Rome? It is when independent brethren begin to function as one. The premillennial error had no formal linking of churches and it has, for the most part, died out. It was not a Roman apostasy. On the other hand, brethren who have gone institutional have among them the same troubling questions that saints have always had: the covering, apparel, dancing, etc., etc. What sets them aside is that they linked congregations into a single functioning unit. That is what led to Rome and that is the trend toward apostasy.
In our day, among conservative brethren, we are seeing a definite trend toward apostasy. A particular set of questions are prepared and circulated for all the churches to use to determine whether or not a man is walking in the old paths. Like it or not -- a creed. A petition is circulated for all to sign which is then used to alter the character of something that has nothing to do with the Lord's church. A step in the wrong direction. A gospel paper urges all local churches to discontinue sending their independent bulletins and subscribe, instead, for all of the members to that particular journal. A centralization that frightens, or ought to. One publishing house produces the class books, songbooks, tracts, other literature, and commentary for the church of Christ. Is that not a trend? What scares me is that non-institutional brethren fail to see the giant strides we have made in the last few years into wholesale apostasy. Yet, while being concerned about the beast, some continue to act in ways that accomplish the very thing they most fear.
Indeed, there are trends pointing to a new apostasy, but those most alarmed may be the ones fomenting the departure itself.
Alexander Campbell is often remembered as the father of the Restoration Movement, although he was by no means the first to call for a return to New Testament Christianity. This Brobdingnagian (an inhabitant of Brobdingnag, the land of giants in Gulliver's Travels) scholar was a true giant when compared to so many lesser men who were his contemporaries. Thus, he is sometimes given recognition for what others may have first imagined.
Among those things that he needs to be credited with are the three goals which motivated him throughout his life. Those three were:
- the saving of souls;
- the restoration of the work and worship of the New Testament church; and
- the uniting of the believers in Christ.
In this order, they are useful goals indeed.
The first goal ...
The first thing that needs to be discussed with a non-Christian is his relationship to God or the lack of it. It does not one whit of good to talk to an alien about the use of instrumental music when it matters none whether he sings with a piano or does not. The pressing issue for the foreigner is that he has no citizenship in the kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20 ASV). He became alienated from God when he sinned, not when he began to worship with an organ at some later point in his life (Isaiah 59: 1-2). Thus, our highest priority should be to convict him of his sins (John 16:8) and to convert him to the Lord (Acts 3:19).
The second goal ...
We need to remember that prospects are not ready for many of the things which pertain to perfect knowledge, but like the apostles themselves, they need to be brought to a fuller knowledge when they are better able to assimilate it (John 16:12). Most new converts will not have come to grips with the instrumental music issue and, although worshiping with us, may not see anything wrong with the stringed instruments in our assemblies. The same can be said of many other things as well.
What we need to do is to help them grow in knowledge so that they are prepared to abandon those weak and beggarly elements of false religion (Galatians 4:9; II Peter 3:18). They must be made to see the importance of worshiping God in a truly spiritual way (John 4:24). The weak among the Corinthians had not reached that knowledge, yet Paul did not ask that they be withdrawn from or marked (I Corinthians 8:4-13). (Now, for an aside. I am not speaking of the wicked who need to be separated, but those who are merely weak and sickly. The teaching of I Corinthians 5 holds true for the reprobate, but Paul encouraged us to support the weak and aid them in their growth in I Thessalonians 5. On this point I also recognize that those who want to misrepresent what I am saying in this paragraph will do so in spite of the comments added here.)
His third goal ...
The nobility of this ambition depends on what one makes of it. If one has in mind effecting unity within the local church so that brethren can work together in peace it is a noble goal (I Corinthians 1:10). However, if one has the notion that we should work toward a unity that involves congregational alliances then one is altogether incorrect in their motives. There is no working unity beyond the local congregation. To try to establish such is to rope the individual churches into that which takes on the appearance of a denomination.
The only thing God required of us with respect to the brotherhood is to love it (I Peter 2:17). Linking them together results in the very thing being formed that so many passionately oppose -- a denominational arrangement of churches. The apostasy which led to Rome was when more than one congregation somehow found themselves under the same umbrella.
Now, this is not to say that individual apostasy is not to be opposed. The loss of a single soul is portrayed in the scriptures as a tragic thing (Luke 15:1-10). But when brethren lament the fragmenting of the sisterhood of churches and call it an apostasy, they seem to be facing it from the wrong side. Indeed, there was a falling away into sectarianism, but it was when they linked themselves together in a common collectivity of churches (whether real or imagined) not when they began to depart from it.
Congregations should be kept unlinked, autonomous, and independent. Again, the trend pointing toward an apostasy is when brethren call for brotherhood-wide concerns, fellowship, and alliances. The concerns that most of the brethren who signed the petition against Florida College's alleged softening may have been legitimate but in uniting under one banner they began to affect the very thing they most assuredly oppose -- the Church of Christ denomination -- with its proper name and its limited creed. God forbid we would do such a thing.
What troubles me most is that brethren cannot see on the one hand the very real need to preach and teach on marriage/divorce/remarriage, immodesty, etc., yet fail to see on the other hand that such problems have always existed among us but these problems are not what effect a departure from the collectivity we call the Church of Christ. To be sure there is a trend pointing to a new apostasy but its landmarks are not found among the moral weaknesses of individual saints but in our tendency to capitulate to the Devil's desire that we function denominationally; that is, as one collectivity of congregations.
You see, the reason so many are worked up over these extraneous matters as indicators of a wholesale "Church of Christ" apostasy is because they have no idea as to what the church of Christ truly is. Now, I freely admit that it is difficult to do this but try to think as if you were alive 2,000 years ago and then work to create faithfulness to the Lord without regard to what the denominational world is doing. After all, there is not one word in the New Testament that was given to contrast true Christianity with the denominationalism of that day. This in spite of the fact that there were the attendant problems of Judaizers and Gnostics.
Truly alert saints know that the church universal is made up of baptized believers and not congregations. When we seek to foment the boundaries of a united church-hood then we have succumbed to the very error we stand so vigorously opposed to. That is, yielding to a denominational view of the church. Those who wave the banner of fearing "trends which point to a new apostasy" seem to be fearing a breakup of the sisterhood of churches into warring factions. In this, they are calling for stricter rules governing fellowship within this coterie of congregations. Brethren, there is no fellowship between churches (not even in the matter of benevolence as so many contend). For that reason, we do not need to fashion creeds nor call for the withdrawal of fellowship. Let us recognize the same independence of churches that the seven churches of Asia had. To wit, not one word is given to any of them to mark or withdraw from any other. Similarly, although letters were exchanged between churches (see Colossians 4:16), there is no evidence that Colossae was to fear the goings-on at Laodicea or vice versa.