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Liberty and Unity

by Alex Wilson

As happens from time to time, tensions have arisen within some churches and also between some churches over various disagreements. Some of our “mainline Church of Christ” brethren are agitated over whether it’s all right to have special numbers by quartets, trios, etc, or whether all songs should be sung by the whole assembly. Some among them are contending over Hermeneutics or methods of inter­preting Scripture. (This is really the root of the dispute just men­tioned.) Is their traditional approach of determining our duties by looking for New Testament “direct commands, approved examples, and necessary inferences” valid or not? If so, how do we know which of these are still binding and which are not?

In other places, including a few churches close to home, tensions sometimes arise over singing stately hymns versus livelier gospel songs versus contemporary heart-songs (maybe by showing the words on a wall via overhead projector). Some members find their worship becomes more meaningful when they express themselves during song or prayer with uplifted hands; others find this unhelpful or even dis­tracting. Then there is the matter of cooperation with other churches.

. Underlying many of these disagreements is a larger, more basic question: Is the New Testament entirely descriptive, entirely prescrip­tive or somewhere in between? That is, does it say to us, “This is what Christians did in the first century: have the same faith, love and enthu­siasm as you serve the same Lord in very different ways today,” Or does it say, “This is what they did, and Christians in every century should do the same things the same way.” Or is there a middle ground?

 

HOW WILL YOU TRAVEL?

Let us think about an analogy. Suppose you want to travel quickly from Louisville to San Diego. You might go by plane. If so, during the flight the pilot might veer 25-50 miles away from a direct course–due to a storm, a navigational error, or because he wanted to see the Grand Canyon. The pilot has great freedom. You might travel by train instead. By train there is hardly any freedom to maneuver. After all, it’s supposed to stay on the tracks. Or maybe you choose to go by car. Then you’ll have more freedom than the train has but less than the airplane. You’ll have freedom, but within limits. You’ll want to stay on the road, and stay within the speed limit; yet you may drive faster or slower, take a scenic route or the most direct.

Now compare those options to the New Testament’s teaching about church practices and “meetings. It is not like the plane flight: “It doesn’t matter what the Bible says, anything goes! But it’s not like a trip by train either: “All churches should be exactly alike; all should imitate every New Testament practice,-nothing more, nothing less.” No, it’s like traveling by car: freedom, but within limits.

In other words, Bible teaching about church activities is not laid down in rigid laws but inflexible principles. It tells us to baptize, but gives no rules about whether to do so in streams and rivers or in pools inside buildings. Christ told us to remember His death by means of the Lord’s Supper, but He didn’t say Sunday was the only day it should ever be held ( after all, He initiated it on Thursday night). The Corin­thian disciples had fellowship meals, but it seems Paul abolished them due to their abuses; so should we have such meals today, or not? (1 Cor. 11:17-34)

DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN THE COVENANTS

One difference between the Old Covenant and the New is that the former contains many specific details while the latter contains general principles. If Christ’s New Covenant with the church were as detailed as the Old Covenant with Israel it would spell out for us exactly what the pastor-teachers should wear (the color and type material of their suits; whether to wear a necktie or not) …and a precise code governing church meetings ( how many per week, what days and times, the order of each service) …and rigid regulations regarding the architecture, di­mensions, and floor-plan of church-buildings (if it told us to build such edifices at all). The former Covenant was suited to one people living in one small land, and during their spiritual childhood when they needed to be regimented. But the New Covenant is suited to many people scattered around the world in many lands with differing customs; living at different times, and being spiritually more mature and thus able to be trusted with more freedom.

We repeat: our Rabbi has not given His church rigid rules but spiritual principles to serve as guidelines. What principles am I refer­ring to? These, among others: Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Let all things be done for edifying–for the strengthening of the church. Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. Make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Don’t pass judgment on one another; instead make up your mind not to put any stumbling block in your brother’s way.

Within these and other similar guidelines found in Scripture there is much leeway and room for variety. We have great freedom, within the limits of Biblical principles and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Thus churches need not all be alike. There is no one detailed blueprint for us all. Thus differences within God’s guidelines should be no grounds for bitterness or lack of fellowship.

HISTORY’S EVIDENCE

 

“When we examine the history of the many movements that sought to restore the church to its New Testament pattern a remarkable fact stands out. There has been much variety among them. No two of them have agreed on all the details. “It became clear that other Christian move­ments had also pursued the restoration vision, but pursued it in vastly different ways. How could we account for these differences among those who claimed to uphold the apostolic faith?” That is quoted from a very important book by two Church of Christ professors, Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes. I strongly recommend their book, Discov­ering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ.

Here are a few examples. John Cotten was a leader among New England Puritans, who endeavored “to have all Christ’s own institu­tions, and no more than His own, having a liberty to enjoy all that God commands, and yet urged to nothing more than He commands.” With this desire, he believed that we should keep Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath,” and observe it from Saturday evening to Sunday evening-­not Sunday morning to Monday morning, as was common in England. He also believed, along with many others, that we should sing only Psalms or other Scriptures put to music. How dare any uninspired writer expect his words to be sung in church meetings, as though on a level with inspired verses!

Again, most Separate Baptist churches in the 1700’s believed in “the nine Christian rites”: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the love feast, foot washing, the kiss of charity, anointing the sick, laying on of hands, dedication of children, and the right hand of fellowship. But a leader of the Particular Baptists during the same era found thirteen rites that Christians should practice: all the “nine rites” except dedication of children, plus collecting money for the saints, feasts, fasting, funerals, and marriage. He also believed that the Lord’s Supper should be ob­served every Lord’s day evening only, for not only did the earliest Christians observe it at that time, but the very term “supper” required it–since any other time would make it the Lord’s breakfast or the Lord’s dinner! Would you care to debate that man?

Refreshingly, the Separate Baptists, unlike many other groups, “left room for disagreements about the precise details of the biblical pattern, for they did not want to revert to the strict conformity they had fought so hard to escape.” Hooray for them.

The point is clear: If we are to enjoy the unity which Christ desires His people to have, we must also grant each other liberty in beliefs and practices.




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I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33