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God Isn't A Cookie Cutter

by Alex Wilson

A true incident told by Glenn Baber at the Louisville Fellowship Week some years ago continues to intrigue me. Members of a small Church of God in Grapevine, Texas began asking, “How can we reach our community, and influence people for Jesus?” As they considered this question, they decided they might learn some helpful ideas from a nearby Church of Christ. It was larger than their church, and appar­ently had developed some effective ministries. So they did a novel thing: a whole bunch of them attended the vacation Bible school at the Church of Christ. Maybe they felt VBS was the method they them­selves should use for outreach, and thus they attended in order to learn some lessons.

But here is what happened. As they attended and heard God’s Word taught, mutual acquaintance between the folks of the two churches grew to mutual respect, trust and love. As a result the Church of God members concluded, “Why should we have VBS when we and, the people of our neighborhood can attend the Church of Christ’s VBS -just around the corner from us? We’ll start some other ministry.” And they did–a youth center, I believe–and God blessed them.

This incident raises lots of questions. Could similar steps be taken in other places? Should they? Just think how much duplication of ac­tivities occurs in countless communities. And duplication usually re­sults in omissions, too. For instance, perhaps four Gospel-preaching churches (for we are not thinking of any other kind) exist within sev­eral blocks of each other. Suppose that all of them have small schools for their member’s children, but that in their neighborhood there is no family-counseling service, no youth center for reaching unchurched young people, no in-depth Bible training school…yet all those activi­ties are needed in that community. Presuming that no congregation has the personnel or money to carry on all of those ministries, wouldn’t it be great if one church would concentrate on the children’s school, an­other on the counseling for families, another on outreach to teen gangs, and another on a Bible institute? Result if they all cooperated, all four churches and the entire community would benefit im­mensely.

Maybe you respond, “What a wild dream, totally impractical! It would never work, and it’s a waste of time even to consider it.” You may be right. But somehow it worked to some extent in Grapevine, Texas, even without prior planning. . Perhaps with prayer, love, and long range planning something would happen in other places too. In fact, here’s an actual example told by Robert Fife. Some years back, instrumental Christian Churches in the Chicago area established the Christian Service Center in a city ghetto. Near the Center was a storefront non-instrumental Church of Christ. Because of its presence, no effort was made to establish a Christian Church at the Center. Rather, the Center’s director and his wife became members of the storefront congregation. In fact, when that church later lost its lease, the Chris­tian Service Center made its facilities available without charge. Wasn’t that grand? Isn’t it sad that such examples are rare? Maybe our readers know of similar cases. Why not tell us about them?

 

BUT IS IT BIBLICAL?

Maybe someone will respond to the previous fictional example by saying, “Even if it were possible, the idea is unbiblical. To cooperate like that with other churches would require doctrinal compromise.” Well, I’m not considering compromise of any basic Biblical truths (such as those enumerated in Eph. 4:3-6). If working with other groups of Christians would require us to trim the Gospel message, for­get it. That would be trading our birthright for a bowl of soup. But is it not possible for various churches to work together to some extent, de­spite differences and without compromising the conscience of any? I believe so, more often than we think, if we apply two Biblical princi­ples we believe and teach: (l) the autonomy of the local church, and (2) the rejection of man made creeds as requisites for fellowship. Let’s look at both principles.

CONGREGATIONAL AUTONOMY,

That term means that each congregation is independent of control by outside people, whether it be a pope, denominational supervisor, or church council of some sort. Instead, the local church is responsible directly to the Lord for leadership, which should be exercised by lo­cally-chosen, Scripturally-qualified elders as they wait upon the Lord. Of course that means that local churches will differ from place to place in some ways, for we don’t all see things exactly alike. Nor did Christ expect us to, nor were churches in the apostles’ time alike in every way. Nor was that a sin. For example, members and leaders of the Jerusalem church were still observing Old Covenant feast days in the temple, while churches in Gentile lands avoided such practices en­tirely (Acts 21:17-26). In the same way, six churches of Christ today might all believe the one Gospel-message of salvation (I Cor.15:1-7), and yet differ in peripheral matters.

Church # 1 may decide to support a particular evangelistic ministry.

Church # 2 decides not to back this ministry.

Church # 3 may believe Scripture justifies ordaining not only elders and dea­cons but also deaconesses.

Church # 4 disagrees.

Church # 5 may choose to participate in a local drive against pornography.

Church # 6 does not.

Yet the six congregations could cooperate in a number of ways. That is part of our Freedom in Christ: to cooperate, in love, with other congre­gations even when we don’t agree about everything. Each church should be both independent from other churches and interdependent on other churches.

FELLOWSHIP BASED ON THE GOSPEL, NOT CREEDS

When we claim to have “no creed but Christ, no book but the Bi­ble”, we mean nothing should be added to the Gospel as a requisite for fellowship. Fellowship depends on our fellow-salvation, which de­pends on a proper response to the Gospel of Christ and him cruci­fied.” So we will “receive one another as Christ has received you.” (Rom. 15:7). We rightly object to anyone saying, “You can be a member of our church only if you are born again and also agree with our interpreta­tion of the millennium, or of eternal security, or of spiritual gifts,” etc. And since we object to having any such creed imposed on us, we also should not impose one on others. We seek to promote freedom, unity in diversity, following Christ according to our differing under­standings of His will (Rom. 14). But unwritten creeds are often en­forced just as rigidly as written ones. Barriers to fellowship are often erected not because someone rejects the Gospel but simply rejects longstanding traditions of other people. Let’s just pretend and wonder for a few minutes……

 

WHAT IF…?

Suppose there is in our community an undenominational congre­gation that began in the 1970’s. (Quite a few did start then.) Suppose its members believe in the Bible’s inspiration, God’s trinity, Christ’s deity, the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, Christ’s return, salvation by grace, immersion as an initial step of faith, and weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. So far so good. But also suppose that the name on their signboard is “Christ Is King Assembly” or some such title. Suppose too that it is their practice to observe the Lord’s Supper on Sunday night only, for the morning meeting is always given to gospel-preach­ing directed at the unsaved. Suppose it has somehow become their tra­dition to have women take up the offering. And suppose that in singing they occasionally clap and occasionally raise their hands to the Lord, but usually do neither.

Now the plot thickens. Suppose the leaders of this group come to our elders and say they realize their need for wider fellowship. They say they’ve been too lone-wolfish in the past, but now they desire to join together with our church plus our three sister-churches (two miles, five miles and nine miles away). In amazement our elders ask what specific kind of fellowship they seek. They reply that they are thinking about things like joining our monthly church-leaders’ discus­sions, and our training-school (they have four young men who would like to study there, and a couple of church leaders who could teach some subjects). Also they want their young people to take part in our youth rallies and retreats. Such meetings could be held at their place too, when their turn comes around. And they hope to join in our camp activities too, both as campers and teachers. In short, they are not only seeking recognition as fellow-Christians but also cooperation and mu­tual participation. They want to join our non-denomination! What should we do in a case like that?

I grant this is a fictional case. But stranger things have happened once in a while. And I know of churches that observe one or another of the practices ascribed to that church. So supposing the preceding scenario took place, how would we respond?

Would we be embarrassed and squeamish, and tell them it really wouldn’t work? After all, what would our sister churches in other parts of the country think?

(But this might be a great chance to extend unity among God’s people, and isn’t that important? And how would Paul react to this op­portunity? What did he mean when he wrote, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ and the head cannot say to the feet. ‘I don’t need you’”.

On another level, what would Barton Stone or Thomas or Alexander Campbell do in this situation?)

Or, in replying to the request from this fictional church, would we set conditions, and demand conformity: “We’ll accept you if you change your name and change your practices to agree with ours.” (But that would be confusing unity with uniformity, wouldn’t it? And do we have a creed after all? And do we truly believe in the free­dom and church autonomy we talk about?)

And what about those strange practices of theirs? How can they claim to be following the teachings of God’s Word?

(But actually, are not a number of our own practices the result of tradition, without specific Biblical mandate? They are not wrong, of course, but neither are they the only right way of doing things. The New Testament gives general guidelines regarding many church prac­tices rather than rigid rules or a detailed blueprint. We recognize this to some extent, for there are some things first-century believers prac­ticed which we don’t – the holy kiss, fully supporting destitute wid­ows, meeting open for mutual edification and free exercise of spiritual gifts, and there are some other things they didn’t practice but we do­ – church-building, Christian schools; monthly magazines).

I don’t know how the Grapevine Church of Christ responded to the Church of God’s decision. Brother Baber didn’t tell us. And I’m unsure exactly how your church or mine should respond if a Christ is­ King Assembly approached us as imagined above. And I’m not urging us to throw out all our practices–if you think that, you’ve missed my point. But let’s do examine thoughtfully our attitudes and actions to­ward other Christians, and our underlying reasons for them. And let’s evaluate our own practices too, asking ourselves where we should be Biblically firm and uncompromising and where we should be Bibli­cally free and flexible.

 




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