“It is enough for a student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” – Jesus Christ
Months ago, when I started this post before storing it away in my drafts, I had received a catalog in the mail from the bookstore of a Christian college associated with the Church of Christ. I opened it looking to see if they offered a Greek language study workbook that they used to carry years ago. My heart both flared up defensively and started weeping with compassion as I read titles of books that, instead of fixing people's eyes on Jesus, were fixing people's eyes on the historical and contemporary church. I wish I still had it now to list more, but one of the titles I remember was called What about Instrumental Music in Worship?
Shew. I’m getting to the point where I don’t have the energy to answer that question any more. I want to just respond, “What about it?” My friend who is strung out on prescription drugs and checked into rehab isn’t going to be healed by how he worships on Sunday. My son who is getting baptized this weekend (!!!) isn’t going to be saved because he believes one way or the other about that issue. My buddy trapped in a life of aggression and anger because he was hurt as a kid by a villainous adult and made the agreement that he “will never be weak again!” WILL NOT BE HEALED BY READING THAT BOOK AND TAKING IT’S MESSAGE TO HEART.
Ya feel me?
There is such a huge difference between a religion that seeks to help people imitate Jesus Christ in heart, character, priorities and mission and a religion that seeks to imitate the historical church's external worship practices, belief systems, gathering habits, life philosophies and superficial doctrines.
Now, before I go on, I'm not outright condemning the focus on church. After all, the church is the bride of Christ. The church is the group of people on planet earth that Christ indwells to continue his presentation of himself to the world today in the flesh. The bride's worship practices matter, her belief systems are important, and her philosophies and doctrines make a huge difference in how they live life, what message they carry to the world, and whether or not they are continuing to represent God on earth in the way that Jesus did.
But...and this is a very big but...the focus on the church as a pattern for how we are to "do church", rather than a focus on Christ as a pattern for how we "do life", is a focus riddled with danger. Life-stealing, legalism-producing, religion-focused, anger-inciting, divisive danger that distracts people from the only Source of salvation of any kind. I have seen (in myself as much as in others, mind you) as much un-Christlikeness come from the (well-intentioned) focus on the church as I have from any other misguided focus on the planet.
Based on this off-the-mark focus…
- I’ve seen people try to convert people to certain worship practices rather than to Christ (ex: I argued with my Baptist school-mate Ron in high school about our different views on baptism, and we both did so quite zealously, right in front of non-Christian Cheryl, who sat behind us, silently making her decisions concerning what Christianity must be all about based on us.)
- I’ve seen people leave (and recruit other people to leave) churches because of doctrinal issues that had nothing to do with becoming more like Christ (ex: I know a guy who left his ministry position in a church because he disagreed with one of the members who was a Bible class teacher and didn't hold his view on the 2nd coming of Christ).
- I’ve seen groups of Christ followers completely part ways, sometimes into more than 2 groups (!), over a philosophical difference (ex: a whole church I know split right down the middle, one group investing in and maintaining a whole other campus, simply because one group wanted to financially support a Children's Home).
- I’ve seen people outright condemn to hell God-honest, love-motivated people who exhibit every one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5) because they didn't see their way about the practices of church (ex: I have a copy of a book called "the Smith-Hunt debate" where, in the forward, it is acknowledged that "our definite agreement on the essentials of the gospel and New Testament Christianity were wonderfully noted." However, in the same forward, it was acknowledged that the issue being debated (instrumental music) was considered by some as a "test for fellowship". What??? How can the essentials of the gospel be agreed upon, but the difference of opinion on this doctrine was a test for whether we are saved by that gospel message or not?)
- I’ve seen people use the word "Biblical" in ways that would astound the Bible's writers, making them look at each other amazed at the distance people can go in missing the point. (ex: "It's not Biblical to have a choir sing in church." - This means that there is no command or example of a choir being used by any church in the Bible, so to use it is "unbiblical" and therefore "sinful", and therefore, if you do it, you are going to hell when you die).
I could go on and on.
The Christian movement I have come out of (which I deeply love and appreciate, by the way, despite what this piece may seem to reflect) is called the "Restoration Movement".
It has as it's premise the idea of Christian unity based on the restoration of the New Testament church in our day. This sounds at first to be a noble call. It sends you to the Bible, to be sure, but it sends you there looking for the church. You'll look for it's practices, it's beliefs, and it's actions. You'll then start building your own church's practices, beliefs, and actions based on that. As the theory goes, if all churches did this, our differences would be solved, all because we practice the same religious practices found listed in the Bible. Unity accomplished.
Some problems I have with this:
- When you go to the Bible looking for the church, you often skip over the verses that speak of Christ, the bringer of unity (& life).
- When you go to the Bible looking for a list of verses that contain how you should do your worship services on Sunday mornings, you will find them…and use them as such…even when they were not intended for that.
- As I’ve already illustrated, I have never seen anyone’s life miraculously transformed from their conversion to a certain set of worship practices performed at their churches on Sunday morning.
- When you go to the Bible looking for the 1st century church, your spiritual conversations tend to be about the 1st century church, and the people I have met that need saving from anything don’t care about those conversations.
- Our movement has tried it. And it has resulted not in unity, but incredible division to the point of embarrassment. It is just too easy to interpret scriptures differently. One catalogue that attempts to list all the Churches of Christ in the U.S. has codes next to each one to distinguish what “kind” of church it is (OC = “one cuppers” = this church believes you must take communion out of one cup, not multiple ones; NC = “Non-class” = this church believes it is wrong to add a time for Bible classes to the worship gathering on Sunday mornings) Like I said…embarrassing.
And my biggest problem is that this entire premise (re: going to the Bible to restore the New Testament church) is not called for anywhere in the whole Bible. The consistent call of the Bible, as far as I can tell, has as it's premise for Christian unity the followership and imitation of the person of Jesus Christ.
This is what discipleship is.
A disciple is a person who attaches themselves to a teacher, and makes it their aim to become "like" that teacher. It involves learning what he teaches, prioritizing what he prioritizes, living as he lives, embodying the character that he embodies. It is a lifelong transformation of the whole person, the heart, conforming it into the image of the teacher's heart.
And my teacher, who I quoted at the top of this piece, says that that is enough.
In my opinion, our movement could borrow on it's strengths and address it's increasingly problematic error, with an ever-so-slight, but revolutionary adjustment, changing from the restoration of the New Testament church to "the restoration of discipleship". Stop trying to imitate 1st century churches, start trying to imitate Jesus. Stop going to the Bible to find worship practices for Sunday, start going to the Bible looking to become like Christ. Jesus said that’s what scripture is for (Jn 5:39-40).
The point is Christ. The point of everything in the Bible is Jesus Christ. Not the first century church. Christ. Jesus said, "Go and make disciples." Not "Go and build up churches that look like the 1st century church." Even Paul, who's writings we lean on heavily in order to extract any clues we may find in scripture concerning the practices of the 1st century church, said, "Imitate me, as I imitate Christ".
Here's the deal, and I challenge anyone to make a case to the contrary... Focusing on following the church (1st century or otherwise) does not always lead you to Christ...it may lead you to a church and it's ways, but not necessarily Christ and his. However, a focus on following Christ always leads you to Christ and his ways, and by being led there, makes you a part of the church that the Father intends.
Finally, I have an old post that still rings true in my heart.
I’m glad to say that, while I still talk about this for others in my circle who are learning the difference between following a person or a plan, Jesus Christ or some set of rules regarding church worship practices, I feel that I now have my eyes firmly fixed on Christ alone… for life to the full, for the way I am to live, for forgiveness of my sins, for the truth about everything, for how to view my fellow man, and for anything and everything else that matters.
As Jesus says, if I, his disciple, strive to become like him, my teacher…that’s enough.