Is This How We Want to be Known?

Many of us folks in churches of Christ are peculiar people.

RefuteYouThe problem is that, somewhere along our journey as a nondenominational nondenomination, too many of us have embraced the misapprehension that we are not only called to be a peculiar people — called out from among those “other” folks in the world — but that we are the One True Church That Has Everything Right and therefore The Only Ones Going to Heaven which means that Everyone Else is Going to Hell.

I guess that makes it incumbent upon so many of us to straighten out everyone who doesn’t see everything — and I mean everything — the way we do.

Considering the vigor with which we pursue that mission, you would think it was Christ’s Great Commission itself. Not so much to save the unsaved souls in this world, but to correct the souls in other churches who think they are already saved but are in fact mistaken on at least a point or two and therefore apostate and blasphemous and even more certainly bound for hell.

So the mission of many of us (whose church signs quote Romans 16:16 as if God had intended it to be the proprietary copyright-protected brand name of our group of believers) is not to salute, but to refute. We must refute everything that does not conform to the doctrines of our tradition.

All of which makes us about as attractive as Sheldon Cooper of television’s Big Bang Theory but without any of the personal charm.

May I just say this to the folks who have been so impressed with our peculiarly-misplaced mission: We’re an autonomous collective, like the peons of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We don’t have an overarching nationwide or multinational church structure. We don’t have imposed discipline for poor behavior. Each congregation does as it pleases, or hopefully, does as the good Lord pleases.

Therefore, I can’t apologize for the folks from churches of Christ who may have ambushed you in this way.

However, I can encourage you to forgive us and pray for us and hope that we will eventually perceive and wish to imitate the winsomeness of our Savior.

We’re not all that way. Some of us are not afraid to question the doctrines jackhammered into our heads and hearts from an early age and welded there by the terror of hellfire if we doubted. Some of us are willing to use logic that adheres to generally-accepted norms, and to imagine God and love and grace as more than Judge and correction and condemnation. Some of us are eager to see salvation as a gracious way of living Christ in this world as well as living with Him in the next. Some of us desire to be self-disciplined; to seek; to learn; to grasp; to embrace; to truly converse rather than just correct. Some of us believe that perfect love really does cast out fear.

Not all of us. The old ways die hard. And they feed our egoes. Some of us still want to get that better-than-thou rush. Some of us are convinced that the word “distinctive” is the most important word in scripture, even though it doesn’t appear there at all. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of browbeating and disciplining of others to maintain that level of certainty and arrogance, but it has persisted for many generations now in some pockets of our sometimes-fellowship, sometimes-similar-brand-name-only. Yet it can’t last forever.

Nothing that comes solely from the heart of man can.

I don’t think anyone can refute that.

I have lived in both camps. There are times — even now, while writing this — that the temptation is strong to leave the camp of the loving correctible and pitch a tent among the angry correctors. But I don’t dare.

There’s really no future in it.

And I still stand in need of correcting myself — frequently, privately, lovingly, and graciously. That’s how I’d prefer it.

But if it must also be firm and well-reasoned and communal and public, then so be it.

I know there will be those who will find this post ultimately offensive, hideously arrogant, and unforgivably divisive. Some of them will have written correctives more personally, more pointedly, naming those whom they judge and condemn without even once having made an effort to go to those folks singly or in twos or threes or even before the church before taking the matter before the whole world — first in printed publications and now digital ones. I refuse to do that. I believe Jesus shared the instructions of Matthew 18:15ff for good reasons. I do not believe that Paul failed to follow them, even if the details of that compliance are not recorded but assumed by scripture. So I do not believe those instructions are optional. Ever.

Let me make it clear: this post isn’t written to the people who will find it offensive, but to those whom they may have offended or condemned or turned completely away from Christ by an inaccurate and incomplete imitation of His just nature uncomplicated by His merciful nature.

I do hope they know this: that I love them anyway; that I want their efforts for God to be of a nature that He can bless them and make them fruitful; that I dearly desire for them to know Christ and the power of His resurrection: a sacrificial new life free of self and the shackles of man-made law and characterized instead by the freedom found in His Spirit to serve creatively and jofully. I wish that for everyone, including me.

Because I need to read and re-read; consider and re-consider my faith, and the way I practice it, and the Lord I seek to serve … more than anyone else.

I don’t think anyone can refute that, either.

A Little Sermon for Us

My dear fellow believers and siblings in Christ,

This is a little sermon for us when we need it. “Us” includes me. In fact, I may need you to rub my nose in it later. So don’t forget it. Here we go:

It’s not enough to be a good Christian. If you’ve read my blog for long, you already know I believe that works testify to faith in God’s grace, and together they’re a salvific sandwich (just as a PB&J is not a PB&J without peanut butter, bread and jelly). But I’m not really talking about salvation here.

What I mean is that it’s not enough for the believer to get God’s work done in this world or to become transformed into the image of Christ just by …

  • donating to save the World Trade Center cross
  • affixing a bumper sticker for a candidate who opposes abortion
  • voting Republican (or Democrat; whatever your holy preference)
  • clicking “Like” next to a Bible verse or a picture of Jesus on Facebook
  • listening only to contemporary Christian radio
  • eating or not eating at Chick-Fil-A
  • going to church every Sunday and doing the things you’re supposed to do at church
  • abstaining from things you’re not supposed to do
  • sublimating with things that you can do that seem to take your mind off what you’re tempted to do

You know what I mean. All those things, as Paul says about other practices and rules and human commands and teachings …

“…indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

In other words, they’re not transforming of us. They’re not effective in getting God’s work done in us and for others.

I’m not saying anything that really surprises you, am I?

We all know what Jesus taught and it’s hard to do and we like to downplay or ignore or conveniently forget it when it comes to the difficult job of living His life in this world. We know what He taught, though. He pulled the most important things out of God’s law and emphasized them. He taught things like:

  • “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (That’s the goal. None of self, and all of Thee.)
  • “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
  • “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
  • “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
  • “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
  • “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
  • “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.”
  • “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
  • “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
  • “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I’m not going to cite these. You can find them yourself. You know where most of them come from in scripture, but more importantly, you know that they come from the very heart of Jesus your Lord.

I, for one, do not believe He is kidding about these. I don’t think they’re intended to be His laws that we must perfectly do or be forever damned. But I also don’t think they’re just suggestions about nice things to do if we have the time and they don’t inconvenience us too much.

I don’t believe there are any of His instructions to the people He loves that are outdated under the old Law, or no longer beneficial to one’s character, or no longer effective in doing God’s work in this world, or are exaggeration and hyperbole and wink-wink-smirk-smirk because it is impossible for anyone to be perfect.

That’s bullpuckey.

He was.

He’s putting His very heart out there and telling us to make it ours. He’s telling us who He is and whom He can help us become and how. He’s showing us a better life than the lives we’ve chosen, with all of those easy little non-sacrificial doo-diddly-do’s-and-don’ts that may do a tiny amount of good but don’t even come close to getting the job done.

No, they’re not easy. Jesus also said something about taking up a cross and following Him. The cross was not optional equipment for the journey. Doing these things is going to cost us, and cost us dearly — just as doing them cost Him his life.

Yes, they are goals. How can we learn to live the life of Christ in this world if perfection isn’t our goal? Not laws, not suggestions: His loving instructions about making our lives matter in this world, and thereby living out the eternal significance of His life in this world. That’s transformative.

I keep saying “His life.” It has to be His life. He gave His up for us. He’s asking us to do the same for Him … to the blessing of others. Not ourselves.

He’ll see to the blessing of our selves when His time is right.

Okay, that’s my little Sermon on the Blog. We’ve read it. We’ve thought about it. We’ve been made completely uncomfortable by it.

Now let’s live it anyway.

What Does A Kingdom Church Look Like?

Early Restoration Movement founders and leaders often began looking for the answer to that question in the second chapter of Acts, right at the end:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. ~ Acts 2:42-47

That’s a fine place to begin … but to ignore the rest of the chapter (except, perhaps, a few verses to prove a point about baptism) is to excise the reason why this new church – at least for a time – worked to God’s glory:

The Holy Spirit.

He is present in a powerful way throughout Acts 2.

I believe it is impossible to have a vibrant, growing, scripturally-founded, God-praising, unbelieving people-pleasing, kingdom-representing church without the Holy Spirit.

And, in large measure, many churches and individuals have tried. Some actively rebel against the idea of a present, powerful Spirit doing God’s work within and among them. Others downplay the possibility, or fear that abuses of the Spirit’s gifts (more likely, the pretension of them) would cause too much trouble. Others simply don’t seem to be aware of the full measure of the promise of Jesus regarding Him.

We like to quote Acts 2:38a: “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

But we don’t know what to do with Acts 2:38b-39: “And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

An Acts 2 church has no such confusion or fear or rebellion. An Acts 2 church believes what Jesus said, what Peter repeated through the Holy Spirit. An Acts 2 church lives their Christ-life in full view of others, lovingly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, sticking together, at the religious meeting-house/temple and at home, breaks bread and fellowships others, adheres to the apostles’ teachings, has everything in common, sells possessions and goods and gives to the poor.

What was their structure?

Jesus was their living King. He spoke to and through them in empowering ways via His promised Holy Spirit. The apostles – those closest to Him in the years that His mortal heart beat for them – shared His teachings.

“Yes,” you might say, “… but who was in charge?”

Well, the answer is above.

“Yes,” you might respond, “… but somebody has to be in control. Someone has to have authority.

Someone did: Jesus.

The apostles recognized that, acting with His authority through His Spirit, just as He had promised them, doing exactly what He had said they would do:

`Given to me was all authority in heaven and on earth; having gone, then, disciple all the nations, (baptizing them – to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all, whatever I did command you,) and lo, I am with you all the days – till the full end of the age.’ ~ Matthew 28:18-20, Young’s Literal Translation

Forgive me for not being a student of biblical languages nor a divinity-school graduate. I use YLT here to communicate the original grammar, structure and intent of the Greek text since I can’t read it. What Jesus says here is not so much command as it is prophecy; acknowledgement in advance of what His followers will do with the authority He is sharing with them.

They knew He was in charge. It wasn’t just a “given,” it was the uncontested reality of the situation. There were no alternatives.

Our contemporary requirements to exercise local church autonomy or to submit to an overarching hierarchical human authority; to have church leaders – those are a comfort to us in the absence of our recognition of the reality of the century-one church.

Jesus’ authority – given by God – is present in apostolic teachings and through the presence of His Holy Spirit. It’s not an either-or. It’s a both-and.

We have the necessary teachings preserved in scripture.

But if that’s all we have, we’re trying to do a two-handed job with one arm.

God wants to help us help Him, whether in daily living or church governance or any other matter. He offers Jesus’ teachings and example and life and resurrection.

He also offers His Holy Spirit to assist, if we ask and are willing to receive Him.

An Acts 2 church knows that, and asks, and lives it.

One more time:

“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”~ Jesus, Luke 11:13

The Spirit and the Churches of the Kingdom

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” ~ Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13

John was given visionary instruction while he was in the Spirit by the One (introduced in chapter 1 as “like a Son of Man”) to write to the angels of seven churches.

Did the Spirit have the same message for all of the churches? Not precisely the same, though some elements are consistent through all.

Did the Spirit want each of the seven churches to know what His message was for the others? One must assume so, or there would have been seven separate epistles.

Would the Spirit today have different message for individual congregations, depending on what their strengths, struggles, challenges and spiritual temperature (hot or cold or lukewarm) might be?

Would He reveal the message(s) to one evangelist acquainted with all of them, to be delivered by him to all of them?

I don’t have a specific answer to those last two questions. He might. He might not. But to totally discount His work in this way as impossible, based on no scriptural conclusions, is foolhardy at best. It could be blasphemous at worst.

By that, I mean that it could be seen as men trying to tell God what He can or can’t or should or shouldn’t or must or must not do through His own Holy Spirit.

And once again, I come back to the doubt that very many church leaders would be open to the possibility of the Spirit operating as He did in the scriptures – through an individual or group of individuals not currently among the membership of their own church.

Is it possible that we don’t have the Holy Spirit because we don’t ask for Him? Is James 4:1-3 as true about asking for the Holy Spirit as it is about other things we want? Do we want those things more? Do we ask for His wisdom, but while failing to believe God will deliver?

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. ~ James 1:5-6

How would the leaders and members of your church react if sent a letter by a former evangelist, or another neighboring church or group of churches, expressing concern over something happening or a teaching shared at your church that might be wrong?

How did Corinth react when Paul wrote them about a man bedding his father’s second wife; about their competitive spirit in worship and regarding who baptized them and who was the better teacher; about lawsuits among them? Did they send back a nasty letter that said, “Congregational autonomy! Mind your own blankety-blank business, Paul!”?

I don’t think so, or Paul couldn’t have said what he did about them after Titus’ visit (2 Corinthians 7:8-16).

The problems and challenges of individual churches, if not resolved within themselves by the leaders appointed by the Spirit (Acts 1:12-26; 13:2; 1 Corinthians 12:28), are kingdom business. They witness more than just the shortcomings of individuals or congregations.

They reflect on the Kingdom. They reflect on the King.

Congregational Autonomy vs. Kingdom

I still haven’t seen any good, scriptural bases cited for the concept of congregational autonomy.

If you Google the term or its cousin local church autonomy, you’ll come up with results that are about half-and-half Baptist and Church of Christ in origin.

And while the links that I’ve pursued usually give at least some note to the idea of being under the Lordship of Christ, virtually all of them that I’ve seen define the terms exactly the way that any dictionary would: these terms mean that individual congregations govern themselves.

Yet the terms themselves do not appear in scripture.

They are not commanded. They are not exemplified. They cannot even be necessarily inferred. (Go ahead. Convince me.)

However, the terms “kingdom of God” (65 instances), “kingdom of heaven” (31 instances – all in Matthew!), and even “kingdom of Christ” (1 instance, Ephesians 5:5) are all over the New Testament.

Clearly, the history and prophecy of the Old Testament points to God establishing His kingdom in a powerfully redemptive way. He was to be Israel’s king, but was rejected; nevertheless, He promised to establish an everlasting kingdom through men who were lineage markers in it for thousands of years.

He made good on the promise through His Son, Jesus, the Christ. The King.

How does that work with the governance of churches within His kingdom? We’re a little fuzzy on that concept, aren’t we?

I did a series of posts years ago touching lightly on what scripture says about living as a kingdom Christian:

Matthew | Mark | Luke | John | Acts | Ethic | King | Subjects

But what does it mean to be a kingdom church, governed by God and His Regent, Jesus Christ?

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. ~ Isaiah 9:6-7

Nothing in scripture gives me any indication that God expects His people as a nation nor as a church to fully govern themselves.

He gave instructions to Moses to have the people appoint judges (Deuteronomy 16:18), but He also gave Israel the Urim and Thummim so they could ask Him (Exodus 28:30).

He gave Israel the kingship they craved (1 Samuel 8:22) after having warning them about the way in which such a king should lead, many years before that (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) – and the future kings were to respect God’s law; His instructions.

He gave the church of century one apostles and elders and evangelists and prophets to instruct Jesus’ new followers after the ascension of their Example to the throne in heaven. They were to teach, instruct, and – among other things – resolve questions (Acts 15:2). But He also gave that church His own Holy Spirit, to guide them into all truth (John 16:13). In resolving the question of Gentile Christianity, the Holy Spirit was regarded as indispensible (Acts 15:28).

This is the same Holy Spirit about whom Jesus said we need to ask the Father in heaven in order to receive (Luke 11:13).

So when it comes down to the issue of church governance, there’s a really important question that I fear is too often left unanswered, ignored, and sometimes even mocked in this century twenty-one:

Do the leaders – and members – of the church ask for Him?

The Kingdom Has Subjects

Matthew | Mark | Luke | John | Acts | King | Ethic

My bloggin’ buddy Fajita can stretch a bloggin’-topic series to at least 12 interrelated entries – as he has indeed done with his “Post-Restoration Hope” cycle. It’s a dandy, and you shouldn’t cheat yourself out of a single installment.

I play out after quite a few less than 12. I’ve just barnstormed the topic of the kingdom of heaven, and this will pretty much wrap it up as far as I’m concerned.

It won’t be typical. There won’t be a bulleted list of scriptures linked to Bible Gateway.

The kingdom is a novel concept to us … possibly because we’ve only encountered the concept in novels (or movies or theatre). It’s not part of our culture. It’s almost antithetical to American culture; our ancestors fought the Revolutionary War to get out from under a monarchy. They established our own kind of government. If you don’t like it, turn the beggars out after four years and start over.

It’s our country and we’ll do what we want to with it, thank you.

Kingdoms don’t operate that way. There’s royalty. And there’s subjects. If you’re not one, you’re the other.

We don’t have a clear picture of what it means to be a subject in a monarchy, whether in early Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Israel, Rome, Europe, China or Japan. We don’t really like the idea of being subject (verb form) to anyone. We pledge allegiance to ourselves, not to a king or queen.

We don’t fully grasp that a king has the final authority. There is no court of appeals.

We don’t comprehend that everything in a kingdom, technically, belongs to the king even if he generously lets us use what we have worked hard to earn and purchase.

We don’t really appreciate that there is a kind of slavery, of involuntary servitude that is implicit in a royal government.

Or that the best stuff we produce goes to the king.

So the kingdom of heaven is a much more hazy concept to us Americans than it was, say, to first-century Christians … or medieval serfs … or even citizens of the United Kingdom.

But it’s a term that’s as common as grass in scripture and it’s here to stay.

If we can’t change the name, how can we better embrace the concept?

Because, when it comes right down to it, Fajita and I – and lots of others! – are blogging about the same thing.

Here’s my series in the order I wrote ’em:

And here’s the question: How can we make the kingdom a clearer concept to ourselves and others?

The Kingdom Has an Ethic

Matthew | Mark | Luke | John | Acts | King | Subjects

It’s clear from the Ethic on the Mount (and many other scriptures) that Jesus wanted His kingdom to be a defining part of our lives:

It is an amazing ethic (Matthew 7:28-29) because of its authority … the authority of a King who loves His subjects to death.

His death, not theirs … so He could put to death what keeps them from Him.

The Kingdom Has a King

Matthew | Mark | Luke | John | Acts | Ethic | Subjects

No kingdom can long survive without its king. The kingdom of heaven has one that is like no other:

Nobody asks the most important question about the kingdom and the king any better than the late Dr. S.M. Lockridge:

Do you know Him?

Kingdom Christianity Expressed in Acts

Matthew | Mark | Luke | John | King | Ethic | Subjects

Forgive the double-entendre in the title, but it illustrates the principle that you find throughout Luke’s sequel, and that those acts of preaching often were accompanied by acts of mercy and compassion:

  • Jesus came back to talk “kingdom” 40 days (Acts 1:3)
  • Timetables weren’t part of the agenda (Acts 1:6)
  • Philip preached it (Acts 8:12)
  • Paul and Barnabas preached it, with a prophecy of trouble (Acts 14:21-23)
  • Paul argued it persuasively (Acts 19:31)
  • He committed to it, foreknowing the consequences (Acts 20:25)
  • He explained and declared it (Acts 28:23)
  • Boldly and unhindered, right up to the end (Acts 28:31)

And Paul and others wrote about it – what it isn’t and what it is:

That it is to be inherited, but not by everyone:

The inheritors receive it as a gift:

And they were both receiving it and would receive it soon:

Okay, I sneaked in a lot more than just the book of Acts here. Still, the theme of “acts of service” in the kingdom is consistent.

If we are concerned with sharing and serving, we don’t have to be concerned about the timing of the breaking in and coming of the kingdom.

We’re part of it.

Kingdom Christianity per John

Matthew | Mark | Luke | Acts | King | Ethic | Subjects

Like Paul Harvey, the apostle John tells us “The Rest of the Story.”

I don’t know whether he had access to one or more of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark or Luke) – his closing verses lead me to suspect that – but he seems to concentrate on telling the parts of the story of Jesus that will lead us to believe (John 20:30-32).

So his two references to the kingdom are like bookends, near the beginning and the close of his story:

  • Be born again to see and enter it (John 3:3-5)
  • Understand that it’s of, and from, another world (John 18:36)

But in those few verses of the very mystical, miraculous, powerful, persuasive gospel of John there are profound truths.

The kingdom is transcendent, more important than fighting to prevent an unjust arrest, leading to a more cosmic judgment.

The kingdom is transformation, from this world to the next.

That transformation is compulsory – “You must be born again.”

And that transformation makes us “The Rest of the Story.”