December 2, 2012
In this issue: Legends of the Churches of Christ Jeff Smith
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By Jeff Smith
Even casual discussions with friends and loved ones who are outside of the churches of Christ can reveal a very strange mythology that has developed around them.
They are sometimes mischaracterized, maligned, and ostracized on the basis of misunderstood or poorly explained practices. Not all the criticisms, of course, are unfair or false, even if the scriptural basis for the differences among us goes unexplored. It is the mythology about churches of Christ that concerns us now, the kind of thing one hears about them from those operating according to ignorance or malice.
Some of these legends evolved from polemic straw men, a debater’s dishonest attempt to draw conclusions for his opponent, ascribing to him bizarre beliefs that, through repetition and print, were spread to his fellows. There is room in the world for honest debate and discussion among those who believe in Jesus, but disagree on a host of other matters. There is no genuine place, however, for the lazy or purposeful mischaracterization of anyone’s beliefs, especially when it is simply in the interest of winning an argument. All those who count the New Testament their guide should abide by this simple rule; perhaps then the Lord’s plea for unity might be observed again.
When I was a novice member of the Paden City church of Christ, one of my friends took it upon himself to point out my folly. He encouraged doubt in my heart by pointing out how ridiculous were some of the traditions there on the corner of Witchey Street and Fourth Avenue. For example, he said, your new brethren do not believe in having windows in the church building, implying that panes of glass were a slippery slope to damnation. He was right in that the meeting house was rather windowless, but wrong about the reason. I suspect cost and distraction mattered, but no one ever objected on scriptural grounds.
Other myths, more serious and more dangerous, have developed, however. Left unchallenged, they make those peculiar members of the churches of Christ look absolutely silly, perhaps even evil. Most often, they are made, not by atheists and skeptics, but by denominational neighbors.
Myth: Churches of Christ Have No Music
The most formidable legend about churches of Christ is the claim that we don’t have music in our worship. Perhaps, this myth began when someone observed, rightly, that pianos, organs, guitars, and even choirs are missing from our meeting houses. The presence of music – a cappella congregational singing – becomes apparent, however, almost as soon as the worship service begins.
We understand that instruments of music like the harp and tambourine were used in the Old Testament worship within the temple, but it must be admitted that New Testament worship is vastly different from that under the law of Moses. The burning of incense and slaughter of animals was as much a part of Old Testament worship as the playing of mechanical instruments. We do not perform these other rituals for the same reason that we eschew worshiping God with musical instruments – the authority of Moses’s Old Testament to regulate and instruct has been replaced completely by the authority of Christ’s New Testament, which is silent on all three of these worship forms. Jesus was given all authority in heaven and Earth (see Matthew 28:18-20), becoming the church’s sole lawgiver (see James 4:12); whatever we do, in word or deed, must be according to that authority to be pleasing in God’s sight (see Colossians 3:17).
That authority is revealed on the pages of the New Testament, which are silent regarding any form of musical worship, save for that done by the human voice, and throughout the first century and long after, that authority was respected and musical instruments were kept out of worship. It was not until the seventh century that a Roman pope made an unsuccessful attempt to introduce it to Catholic worship, and even into the nineteenth century, it was widely condemned by Protestant preachers as unauthorized by God.
The scriptures are plain concerning the authority of vocal music in praise to God. We hear apostles and disciples singing (see Mark 14:26, Hebrews 2:12, Acts 16:25, Matthew 26:30). It is something God tells us to do as a sacrifice of the fruit of our lips to him (see Hebrews 13:15). We hear the apostle Paul command spirited singing (Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-19). Yet never can we find a single command to play an instrument to God, a single example of an individual or church doing it, or any possible inference that it could or should be done, and so our insistence upon vocal music only is borne out of respect for the word of God and its absent approval of a worship form that only recently began to gain acceptance among men.
It is a myth, however, to suggest that we have no music in our worship.
Myth: Churches of Christ Have No Pastors
Another myth that results from misunderstood jargon is that churches of Christ do not believe in having pastors.
The New Testament indicates that pastors are not generally the congregation’s preachers, but its overseers, its shepherds, its bishops. The word pastor appears only in Ephesians 4:11 as distinct from evangelists, teachers and apostles and none of these words is used interchangeably; they refer to different offices.
Pastor is from the Greek word “poimen,” which means “to shepherd a flock.” To ascertain the identity and function of pastors, we need only discover to whom the work of shepherding spiritual flocks was given. In Acts 20:28, Paul told a group of men to shepherd the flock at Ephesus, which Christ had purchased with his own blood; back in verse 17, we learn that he was speaking, not to the priest of Ephesus or a preacher in that great city, but “the elders of the church.” Likewise Peter addresses the elders of his audience in 1 Peter 5:1-4, instructing them to “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you.”
The work of pastoring was never given to evangelists (or preachers), but to elders and there was always a plurality of them in any given place, rather than this authority being vested in a single man (Acts 14:23). Furthermore, the titles attached to such men (Reverend or Father, for example) and any special clergy clothing are without scriptural precedent and actually violate the spirit of Matthew 23:6-10. The word “Reverend” is only used once in the King James Version and is applied there to the name of God (see Psalm 111:9); to attach it to a man’s name is to elevate him beyond what is right (see 1 Corinthians 4:6).
The New Testament calls all Christians priests (see First Peter 2:9) and makes no clergy/laity distinction and so as obedient disciples, we submit to our pastors, but not in the way Protestants do, but to suggest we do not believe in pastors is a myth.
Myth: Churches of Christ Reject Salvation By Grace
A third commonly believed myth about churches of Christ is that their members do not believe in salvation by grace.
Because of controversial beliefs about the role of water baptism in the scheme of salvation, it is sometimes thought that we have chosen to reject grace in favor of personal merit. We, however, will go only so far as the inspired writers on such subjects, and no further.
James wrote, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). James predicted the foolish battle men would pitch between works and faith by challenging, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). After borrowing Paul’s Abrahamic example of justification, he concluded in harmony with the apostle, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” – and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:18-24).
Christ himself taught, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). The wise man of Christ’s parable built his house on the rock by hearing and doing the will of God, not by hearing only and doing not. We believe that salvation is by grace, although the myth is that we do not, perhaps because we understand that grace is not nullified when God sets certain conditions for receiving the gift, which still do not constitute earning the gift. Faith is one such condition, and believing is doing the work of God (John 6:28-29). Repentance requires serious human effort at reformation and resistance (Acts 3:19, Second Peter 3:9). Even confession demands courage and resolve, being unto salvation (Romans 10:9).
Baptism is no rival to grace, but cooperates with it, for Jesus is “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). Peter assured his audience that, “Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).
Submission to the Bible doctrine of one baptism does not require us to set grace aside, for a dip in the pond is worthless if not occasioned by the saving blood of Jesus (see Ephesians 4:5, Luke 7:31, 17:7-10).
Myth: Churches of Christ Believe Their Buildings Are Sacred
A fourth myth is that we believe the church building is somehow sacred like the temple in Jerusalem.
This myth is again borne of our concern for Christ’s authority in the New Testament and the fact that many churches today are doing a work which God never gave the church to do.
The church – not the meeting house, but the people themselves – is the current temple of God (see Ephesians 1:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5). Its members are living stones, but the church’s building is merely an expedient place in which the members can assemble to carry out God-given duties, authorized only by necessary inference that work God has given allows for anything necessary to its completion (see Hebrews 10:24-25). The church is to assemble and so the meeting house is purchased as an expedient place to achieve this duty – or a room is rented or a spot cleared out under some trees.
The line of authority is crossed, however, when activities which God has not given the church are assigned to that time and place. Of social meals, for instance, Paul told the Corinthian church to eat elsewhere for such gatherings were not the function of the church for which Jesus died (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Furthermore, the church is to be apolitical and not a polling place or stump for candidates. Adult education, daycare, and secondary schools are not part of the church’s work and so must not be funded under its auspices. Many other such functions of a modern social gospel, both ethical and recreational, have all the marks of human wisdom and personal preference, but no place in the authority of Christ for his kingdom.
It is not that we believe the meeting house is sacred, but Christ’s authoritative word certainly is.
Myth: Churches of Christ Don’t Celebrate The Birth and Death of Jesus
Finally, a fifth common myth about churches of Christ is that we don’t celebrate the birth and death of Jesus.
This myth is rooted in the fact that, without biblical precedent for the church, we do not set aside a certain day of the year to commemorate the Lord’s nativity, nor do we limit his resurrection to a springtime festival.
The date of Christ’s birth is unknown, left a mystery by God and the writers he inspired to prophesy and preserve the essential details about his nature, calling, and character. The early church did not celebrate his birthday and modern attempts are merely guesses at the date and manner such a festival should take.
Moreover, his death and resurrection were to be remembered, not by a vernal festival borrowed from pagan fertility cults, but through the Lord’s Supper, observed on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Acts 20:7).
There are many secular aspects of these holidays in which members of churches of Christ do participate outside the auspices of the congregation, to insert them into the work and worship of the church, however, would be an imposition of a human innovation upon the King.
There are likely many more myths and legends about churches of Christ and their members. It is important to note that no one on Earth speaks on behalf of churches of Christ, either as an earthly president or appointed spokesman. Churches of Christ are autonomous congregations, not a denominational system (Romans 16:16). In fact, there are progressive congregations around the world that are going beyond the scriptures in all of these matters. ~
From Watchman Magazine, July 6, 2012