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DOING THINGS DIFFERENTLY

by Alex Wilson

Times change, and people do things differently.

I once saw a picture of a Puritan church meeting in the 1600’s. All the men sat on one side and the women on the other–at least in that picture–and the men were wearing their hats inside the building! (The movie Oliver Cromwell showed King Charles wearing his hat at mealtime in his palace, so that must have been accepted custom in those days.)

The Puritan preacher and commentator, Matthew Henry, “in public services usually prayed for half an hour, preached for an hour, and joined in singing Psalms.” Are you glad or sad that we do things differently from the Puritans?

Alexander Campbell lived 200 years ago. He too didn’t quite follow our pattern — or rather, we don’t follow his in every way. In his magazine he reported visiting a church on one of his trips to the Midwest. Shocked, he wrote something like this: At that meeting I saw something I’ve never seen before and hope never to see again, a congregation remaining seated during prayer to the Heavenly Father! He expressed his profound wish that such a disrespectful, irreverent custom might never spread elsewhere. He believed we should either kneel or stand before the Lord when we pray. His view may have been wise, but times have changed, haven’t they?

Campbell also did not follow our custom of having invitation-songs in most meetings. Earl West writes, “When J. W. McGarvey enrolled at Bethany College, he determined to become a Christian. He made up his mind that at the first opportunity he would confess Christ and be immersed. He listened to Alexander Campbell preach much, but it was not Campbell’s custom to extend an invitation after each sermon, so McGarvey waited two weeks after he made up his mind before he had the opportunity of stepping forward.” There’s nothing wrong with having invitation-songs, of course, but they are not essential. Peter at Pentecost didn’t say, “If you want to become Jesus’ disciple, come forward while we sing #131.” It’s too bad McGarvey thought he couldn’t confess faith in Christ till “the invitation” was publicly given in some set way.

Memories from the Early 1900’s

After Word and Work ran two articles about Stanford Chamber’s life, I received a letter and pamphlet from sister Mary Neal Pitner. Her father had been one of his closest friends and they attended Berea Church near Sullivan, Indiana. Brother Chambers considered that his “home church” in Indiana. So it was interesting to read the memorial pamphlet about the congregation, which is now disbanded, largely due to nearby coal mines becoming depleted.)

But you might be surprised to read the section, “Sunday Morning at Berea Church.” Here is an excerpt:

Mrs. Clara (Chambers) Blakeman led singing at Berea Church for as long as I can remember. Clara was an excellent song leader and when we went to Harding (College) or visited nearby congregations, we always could sing the songs correctly, because she was insistent about singing the songs as the music was written. She never stood to lead singing but sat near the front row, usually in about the same place.

Well, that was different, wasn’t it! We mention it here, not to push the idea necessarily, but to rejoice in the fact that in those days such an unusual practice didn’t cause any uproar, division, or attacks by other congregations. We wonder if it happened today, whether Berea would be blacklisted and find few churches extending fellowship to it? Apparently Stanford Chambers, a man who was never accused of compromising Biblical teaching, didn’t feel that his sister’s being the song-leader was wrong. Of course the Bible never even mentions song-leaders, much less telling the requirements for such a ministry.

Which Leads to the Need for Making Distinctions. . .

It helps to distinguish between
what is ANTI-Biblical (contrary to Scripture),
what is NON-Biblical (unmentioned in Scripture but not opposed to its principles),
what is Biblical-but-UNBINDING on us today, and
what is Biblical-AND-BINDING.

Think through those four classifications for a minute or two and see if you consider them valid.

Here are some examples of what I mean.

<>A church gathering where there are prayers to Mary and other “saints” is anti-Biblical, for there is only “one Mediator between God and man.”

<>A meeting in which, after the sermon, the listeners divide into small groups and discuss the sermon topic among themselves–this exemplifies what I mean by non-Biblical. Scripture doesn’t require us to do it, and yet it might sometimes be a very useful activity.

<>Examples of Biblical-but-not-now-binding practices would be foot-washing, the holy kiss, and raising our hands in prayer or praise. The earliest disciples engaged in these practices some-times, if not regularly (l Tim. 5:10 & 2:8, 1 Cor. 16:20), but most Christians feel they are optional today because our culture differs from the first century.

<>Examples of Biblical-and-binding practices would be loving one another deeply, and yet on the other hand expelling from the congregation any Christian brother or sister who persists in clearly wicked activities after being warned (1 Thes. 4:9-10, 2 Thes. 3:6-15, 1 Cor 5:1-13, etc.).

To stimulate us into thinking more deeply about this, here’s a quiz. Classify the following as either

AB (anti-Biblical),
NB (non-Biblical),
BU (Biblical but unbinding) or
BB (Biblical and binding):

  1. A church which always stands during the Scripture reading, out of respect for God’s Word.
  2. Robert Garrett mentioned some churches in Africa where after the meeting the first member to leave the building waits outside the door to shake hands with the others as they exit. Then the second one out does the same, followed by all the rest–until each member shakes hands with every other person there.
  3. A military chapel in Manila where the chaplain was expected to lead the opening prayer, the main prayer later on, the prayer at the Lord’s Supper and the closing prayer, plus giving the Scripture-reading, sermon and announcements!
  4. A church where, instead of a sermon, several men may share some lessons from the Bible, perhaps or perhaps not on a pre-arranged subject.
  5. A church which held a youth-emphasis Sunday during which young men led the singing and prayers, and also preached and led the Lord’s Supper meditation; but young ladies passed the Lord’s Supper emblems and took up the offering.
  6. Some churches in Africa where before singing a hymn they always hum the first verse. (Robert Boyd told us about that; and David McReynolds asked how he knew it was the first verse they hummed — maybe it was the third verse, which we often omit!)
  7. A prayer meeting where folks pray so softly that most other people can’t hear them.
  8. A church which sponsors a Boy Scout and/or Girl Scout troop.

All the above are actual cases, not imaginary. I wonder if we would all agree on our classifications of those practices?

Here are others instances to think about: Churches using hymnals; baptismal robes and pools; Lord’s Supper trays and cups; Sunday school; church buildings; church schools; church camps; revival meetings; monthly magazines (like this one)..

All the items in that paragraph are non-Biblical, are they not?. They are not required, neither are they necessarily wrong. But it’s wise to evaluate some of them periodically, and maybe make adjustments.

They are human traditions rather than divine requirements, but that doesn’t mean they are harmful. Yet it’s possible that some of them might outlive their usefulness, and need to be changed or eliminated.

Here then are valuable guidelines:

  1. Don’t be AFRAID to change, so long as you do so within Biblical guidelines.
  2. Don’t INSIST on change without strong reasons, unless you are opposing something which is definitely anti-Scriptural
  3. Make LOVE your emphasis, because that’s the most important of the Christian virtues.

Innovative “Services,” i.e. Meetings:

I fear this article has been one-sided. Almost all our examples have dealt with church meetings–different ways of doing things when disciples gather together. But . . . .

But we also need creativity in outreach, thinking of fresh, improved ways of serving folks around us. That’s definitely Biblical!

So we close with two examples mentioned in Wineskins, a fine magazine which formerly circulated among Churches of Christ and elsewhere. The article was entitled   “Liberated to be Creative”

“In congregations all over the world Christians are constructing new wineskins as they discover the joys of creating much broader ways to seek first the purposes of God in their lives and congregations.

A congregation in Texas has “adopted” a public school in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. Christians provide food and man-power for a pantry at the school to minister to the neighborhood. A physician provides a free “well baby” clinic at the school every Thursday afternoon. A pharmacist provides prescription drugs at cost for the parents who use the clinic. Every Christmas the entire congregation throws a party for the school complete with Christmas dinner, clothing, toys, and bedding.

In Tennessee a creative congregation is sewing new wine-skins by using its facilities to help the homeless. Christians provide dinner and breakfast for the indigent men and women who come to spend the night. Most care-givers at the congregation minister side-by-side with their entire families as they prepare meals and then spend the night at the building. Children are experiencing first-hand what Christ meant when he said to provide “cups of cold water.”

May our Lord enable us too to be imaginative, bold, visionary and Biblical,
both when we gather to praise Him and
also when we scatter to proclaim Him
and serve others.

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If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Romans 14:8