Issue #102 -------
January 31, 2004
It is the nature of a man as he grows
older to protest against change,
particularly change for the better.
John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
"Travels With Charley"
One of the many joys I experience from my Reflections ministry is the thrill of knowing precious souls are being touched in parts of the world that I will likely never get to visit. Through the Internet, however, God has opened a door of opportunity for me to share His Word and to have almost instant contact and dialogue with brethren and seekers. How exciting it is to turn on the computer and find letters from devoted disciples in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Greece, England, Germany, India, Japan, Okinawa, Singapore, Canada, Brazil, and the list goes on! The church has truly become a global community of believers where distance is no longer an insurmountable barrier to communication. What a privilege God has given us at this time in history to send forth the Word to all corners of the earth, and to edify His people wherever they may be! I truly believe if we fail to take full advantage of this marvelous medium we call the Internet, we will have to answer for it one day!
About ten days ago I received an email from a dear brother in Edinburgh, Scotland. He and I have corresponded in the past, and I always enjoy hearing from him. He is serving the Lord very effectively, and was even able some months back to immerse a former atheist into Christ in the ocean. That new brother is still faithfully serving and worshipping his Lord in Edinburgh. My Scottish brother, with whom I have corresponded previously, had some interesting reflections in his most recent email, and I would like to share them with you, as well as my response to his questions and observations.
I personally want to believe that just about anyone, given the right circumstances, can come to a knowledge of saving Truth. That doesn't mean all will, but I would like to think such is at least possible. After all, the apostle Peter has declared that our Lord does "not wish for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). This seems to imply at least the possibility. The major factor hindering most, of course, is their own self will. Too many are content right where they are, and have no desire to change .... or even to consider change. Thus, the deeper they become entrenched in their religious rut, the less likely it is they will be reached with the Truth.
As for Jehovah's Witness doctrine, I think some of it is good and some of it is bad. Some of their teachings are very much in accord with Truth (for example, their view of the nature of man and some aspects of their eschatology). However, many of their doctrines (such as their view of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit) are so erroneous that they, in essence, are a denial of deity! Thus, overall, even though they do teach some truth, they are a very dangerous group. This is my studied evaluation of them as a group. There is no question, however, that there are some good, honest, sincere seekers of ultimate Truth among their ranks; some who don't necessarily subscribe to all the JW doctrines and practices. This, by the way, is true of just about any religious group or movement. There will always be a certain percentage of dissenters and seekers among them; those who are dissatisfied with what they have been taught, but who have not yet found something better with which to replace it.
Was this person my brother in Christ? He had done all the same things I had done to "enter Christ," and with the same understandings that I had, so I can only assume that if my Lord accepted me on the basis of that demonstration of faith, that He accepted my friend as well. Did we both possess the same understanding of the Scriptures? No. Did we share a common religious heritage and body of tradition? No. However, we were both striving to the best of our ability and understanding to serve the same God and His Son. At some point we must determine if it is our traditions and practices and perceptions that make us brethren, or if it is sharing a common devotion to and union with the Father through the Son. By focusing primarily on the former, which we often have a tendency to do, we exclude from our fellowship a large number of our spiritual brethren!
We need to ask ourselves the question: Who is my brother? What makes another my brother? Is a man my brother in Christ ONLY if he agrees with me on every point of interpretation of the biblical text? If he agrees with me on every traditional practice associated with the "worship service"? If his methodologies match mine? If we share the same preferences? If we both pronounce "shibboleth" exactly the same?! Must one be my twin to truly be my brother? Or, is brotherhood determined by paternity rather than pattern? My tendency these days is to suspect the former. If we both have the same Father, we are brethren. Wherever God has a child, I have a brother or sister. If you have been united with Jesus, then "we be brethren!"
"But, they're brethren in error," some might add quickly. To which I will just as quickly respond, "Are there any other kind?!" We are all brethren in error! None of us has arrived at perfect perception of all Truth, and we certainly haven't arrived at perfect practice of all Truth. We are all flawed, finite creatures who, but for grace, would be hopelessly lost. If the Father accepts me in spite of my many errors, what arrogance it would be for me to assume He would not equally accept others in spite of their many misunderstandings and misapplications of Truth. Yes, we're all "brethren in error." Thank God for His grace ... without it none would be saved.
How do we respond to those sincere seekers who may, in our estimation, have misunderstandings about ultimate Truth? Hopefully, the same way Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos (Acts 18:26). They "took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately" .... keeping in mind that a day may come when another will need to do the same for us with regard to our misunderstandings. We show love, respect, and concern as we seek together to draw ever closer to that perfect awareness and application of God's will for our lives as revealed in the Word. We're all seekers and searchers, fellow students of the Savior. There's no place for debate among disciples as to who among them is the greatest, or the wisest, or the "rightest." In the final analysis, "it ain't about you, it's all about Him."
My friend from Edinburgh continued -- "The next article that struck me was Fractured Fellowship -- Reflections #98. I agree strongly with you on this subject. My question, however, is how do you work out practical issues in cases like these? This seems to me to be where everything falls apart. As an example, and I admit I don't know all the details, but I understand that part of the problem at the Madison church was allowing people to have different types of 'worship services' -- one more traditional and the other more contemporary. This seems a suitable compromise to me, but it didn't seem to work, and they ended up splitting. Why?"
As for the situation at the above congregation, I must plead total ignorance. I simply know nothing about that situation, and thus am in no position to voice any kind of opinion as to what did or didn't occur. I know many congregations are seeking to offer options to their members with regard to worship styles. Usually this involves having one assembly geared more to those who prefer a contemporary style, and then another assembly for those who prefer the more traditional style. In some places this seems to work well, in other places it has caused problems.
I think all of this does reflect a significant truth, however -- worship is not an expression of heartfelt devotion that is forever frozen in the preferences of a single generation. Worship is a living, ever-evolving expression of heart that transcends cultural and traditional boundaries. It is very unlikely, for example, that the first century disciples sang hymns in four-part harmony. Indeed, the introduction of this "innovation" years ago led to ... you guessed it ... squabbling and division. The "godly traditional" style of today was the "godless contemporary" style of yesteryear! No generation has cornered the market on THE one and only "acceptable" style of worship. The fact is, if it comes from the heart, if it honors God and uplifts man, it is acceptable ... whether it is "comfortable" or not! Much of our squabbling comes, quite frankly, from an unwillingness to leave our comfortable traditional ruts and allow others the same right to express themselves as we demand for ourselves. Most of our splits have far more to do with preference than precept, with hard heads than tender hearts. It is departure from tradition, far more so than Truth, that has led to the vast majority of our divisions.
How do we "work out practical issues in cases like these?" Well, as long as we hold on to "my way or the highway" mindsets, we probably never will. Unity will never be realized as long as factionists demand uniformity. Changing the externals is not the solution; we must work on the internals! It is changed hearts, not changed hymns, that will ultimately bring harmony among the heirs of heaven!
Another problem is this thinking that for fellowship and unity to exist we must all assemble under one roof and be uniform in our every worshipful expression before our God. I believe that to be fallacious, and even factional, thinking. Again, I fall back on the insightful expression: "You don't have to be my twin to be my brother." We can be different and still be fellow disciples abiding in sweet fellowship. I have brethren who worship in a building across town, whose style is different from ours, who are nevertheless united with us in Christ. We are in fellowship with one another, even though we don't assemble in the same building or employ the same "worship style" in our assemblies. It is our union with Him that unites us with one another. There is nothing ungodly about a city having several congregations of believers located in various parts of the community. Indeed, this can be a good thing if they love one another and are working together to be a positive influence in the area. What IS ungodly is if they are fussing and fighting with one another over their differing preferences and perceptions, each refusing to acknowledge the other as part of the family of God. Such factionalism is a festering boil on the Body of Christ, and, frankly, it needs to be lanced and drained!
The brother from Scotland continued -- "The problem is close to home for me, at the moment. As you know, I left the local Church of Christ to establish a home group, with their full blessing. The idea was to try and reach those people who might be interested in Jesus and His ways, but who had doubts about 'religious systems.' The one problem we are having, though, is with a beloved brother who remains at the 'traditional' Church of Christ. He worships there on a Sunday, and then comes to meet with us -- we are closer to him than others are in that congregation, and he doesn't get much fellowship from them. He has been a Christian for 20 years and truly loves the Lord, but he is still tied down to many Church of Christ 'doctrines' which are just tradition. The problem is: this is affecting our group, as we are having to deal with 'issues' we thought we had left behind. What do we do? I don't want to exclude this brother in any way, but equally I don't want to be tied down to his beliefs, which I think are seriously hindering people from coming to Jesus (as they are seeing 'religious systems' fighting each other). The situation might be different if he was a committed part of our group, but he remains with his own group and is more like a visitor."
First, let me stress that my use of the following biblical reference in no way suggests your friend from the more traditional congregation falls into the category of "false brethren" alluded to by Paul. However, the governing principle, I believe, applies. The apostle wrote to the Galatian brethren about "false brethren who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you" (Galatians 2:4-5). Again, I would not go so far as to label this friend of yours a "false brother" -- I don't know his heart -- but if his effort is to restrict your freedom in Christ and draw you back into the legalistic parameters of his tradition, then Paul's principle applies. You must NOT yield to that pressure ... not even for a moment. It is critical that the lost about us perceive the GRACE of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that effort will be hindered if they only see us squabbling over matters of LAW and TRADITION.
Brother, you will most likely need to take this individual aside privately (if you have not already done so), as Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos in Ephesus, and try to explain to him the way of the Lord more perfectly. If he is not willing to become a part of your noble mission to reach the lost, then he should NOT be allowed to hinder that effort. If he is intent upon using your evangelistic group meetings to argue for his traditions, then he may need to be "uninvited" for the greater good of your mission. Paul warns us that disputes and controversies about legalities, and the factious thinking of those who promote such, must not be tolerated (Titus 3:9-11). Indeed, such persons must be rejected, Paul says! You may be fast approaching that point, brother. I would suggest that you deal with him lovingly and gently, if possible, and seek to instruct him in the Word and inform him of the nature and importance of your mission. Try and win him to your purpose, making him a partner. But, if this is unsuccessful, then he will need to be removed from your midst so that the proclamation of the gospel of grace might not be hindered.
This brother continues: "I'd really like to make this year one of outreach in Edinburgh and I just need to work out how a disciple of Christ like myself (who also happens to be quiet and shy!) can get around to it. Lord willing, and with the help and advice of good people like yourself, I'm sure our group will manage it!" Let me share with you the words of Jesus, as He spoke to the saints in the city of Philadelphia, "I see what you've done. Now see what I've done. I've opened a door before you that no one can slam shut. You don't have much strength, I know that; you used what you had to keep My Word. You didn't deny Me when times were rough" (Revelation 3:8, The Message). The Lord knows your strengths as well as your weaknesses. He knows your abilities as well as your limitations. He knows what you have done and are attempting to do. However, His charge to us is: "Now see what I've done!" The key to our evangelistic success is not US, it is HIM. If He has opened a door of opportunity for you in Edinburgh, then you will be seeing the fruit of your faithful service to Him. I would only encourage you to be open and sensitive to the Spirit's leading. Look for those open doors of opportunity to reach out to your community ... they will come. All God asks of you is to boldly go through them when they open up before you. If we faithfully plant and water, He will provide the growth:
In one section of his letter to me, this brother sought advice on how best to relate to those of differing perspectives, preferences and practices. He wrote, "Even if we agree to disagree, how can we maintain our unity (in diversity) in a practical way, such as sharing the Supper and using instrumental music? What practical steps can we take when brethren refuse to have fellowship with us because of our differences, even when we would still extend fellowship to them and respect their opinions?" One of the most visible differences between those who promote grace and those who embrace law is that the former are almost always willing to lovingly embrace the latter, but rarely will you ever find the latter willing to embrace the former. Brethren focused on grace will reach out to others in spite of differences; brethren focused on law will separate themselves from others because of differences. Unity will only truly become possible when we change hearts!! We must transform disciples from lawyers to lovers. When legalists promote a Pattern ... there will only be factions, schisms, sects, splinters and splits. However, when grace-centered believers promote a Person, unity will begin to spread throughout the family of God, bringing healing and harmony in its wake.
How do we, who have been liberated by Jesus, relate to and respond to those still enslaved to law? Do we surrender our freedom to appease them? Of course not! But, neither should we flaunt our freedom before them in a taunting manner. In a word, we must LOVE them. Pray for their liberation. Pray for their minds to be opened and their hearts softened. Pray for opportunities to share with them the joy we have found in our freedom. Continue to show them kindness, yet firmness and boldness in our stand for Truth. We must be consistent in our convictions, but compassionate in our outreach to these who have yet to know firsthand the peace of living in grace. I feel the same deep pity for these legalists and patternists that I felt for those who, most recently in history, suffered under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. They are a people desperately in need of liberation. For those who are part of the tyrannical system itself, however ... the party officials who perpetuate the religious oppression ... I feel only disgust and loathing. These people must be exposed and deposed so that a people enslaved by them may come to know freedom in Christ. That is one of the goals of my Reflections ministry -- to expose and oppose those who array themselves against God's grace, and to share with their unenlightened victims the blessed light of a better way. And it is working ... people are walking away from their captivity and tasting for the first time the joys of their new found freedom, which makes this ministry well worth all the effort put into it.
Brother, the harsh reality is that it is impossible to enjoy sweet fellowship with those who refuse it. Nevertheless, we must continue extending the right hand of fellowship to our brethren who have isolated themselves behinds the walls of their self-made religion. Some, who have grown tired of their bondage, will take your hand. Most, sadly, will slap it away. But keep extending it! The few who respond are worth the effort. Must we all embrace the same worship styles in order to be in fellowship? Must we read from the same version, drink from the same number of communion cups, have identical budgets, etc.? Of course not. The basis of our fellowship is not patterns and practices, but the person of Jesus Christ. "You were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ OUR Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:9). John wanted to have fellowship with as many people as he could, and to these he pointed out: "Indeed OUR fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). If we're looking for the basis of fellowship in either compromise or the imposing of personal convictions with regard to the Supper or music or the treasury, we will never find it; if we're looking for fellowship in a common commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, we will have it in abundance! It is time to refocus as the family of God!!
To my dear brother in Edinburgh, Scotland, and to those who worship and work with him to further the gospel of grace in that area of the world, I extend my heartfelt love and appreciation for his/their vision and sacrifice. You all will continue to be in my daily prayers as you seek to live in accordance with His purpose for your lives. May His matchless grace and peace be upon you always!!
From a Reader in Mississippi:
Al, you always say "great minds think alike" .... Well, I have not gotten to your actual article yet (Theology Ex Nihilo), because I could not get past the quote at the beginning -- "It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read." My own upcoming article is on faith, and that (the thought from this quote) is the very first point that I make! We are so often on the same wave length, it is uncanny! Ok, now on to your article ...
... Ok, I finally got a chance to read it! I have to say, Al, this article hit the nail on the head, and in my humble opinion is the best one you have written yet. We all need to be careful to stay grounded in the Truth, and we should also watch that we do not fall to the other extreme, where we get so worried about creating patterns, or worrying about whether what we speak really is the truth (self-doubt), that we keep silent. I believe that talking to God and reading His Word go hand-in-hand. When we rely on both things together, and trust in Him and His Word, we cannot stray. Keep them coming!
From a Reader in Arkansas:
A friend of mine forwarded a couple of your Reflections articles, which I found provocative and interesting. I would enjoy reading more of your writing, so you have my permission to add my address to your mailing list.
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, I very much appreciate your work and have told many others about your writings. Your Reflections are an inspiration to many people searching for the truth. In your response to a reader, you stated that you are reading Yancey's book Soul Survivor. That was an excellent book, but if you have not yet read his book What's So Amazing About Grace?, let me encourage you to read it as well. With my Church of Christ background, I really connected with that book. Thank you for the time you devote each week to writing Reflections. You are one of my heroes!
From a Minister in Indiana:
Great article about Theology Ex Nihilo. Dr. Cottrell has a brilliant mind. I had the privilege of taking his graduate class on the Doctrine of Grace. I have read his books about feminism, women's roles in the church, etc. He makes a good argument. I always appreciate your articles!
From a Minister in New Mexico:
Much of the time our sermons about "giving to God" are inherently less than truthful because we use much of what's collected to pay our collective obligations. Much of our sharing of resources (and, in reality, collections are opportunities to share) is about paying our own bills ... bills for the gas we use to heat buildings, bills for electricity to run sound systems and light lights ... bills for buying and maintaining furnaces, air conditioners, carpet and pews. Sometimes it's even about "sharing our resources" to pay others for what we ought to be doing ourselves. It's rare that any preacher points out that much of our giving is to pay our own bills. It just might be a good idea to be more honest with ourselves.
From a Reader in California:
A quote by one of your readers reminds me of something that I had hoped to forget. I later learned that in the congregation my husband and I grew up in some of the members were admonishing the widow women that they should deed their property over to the church. That certainly gives a whole new meaning to the "collection," does it not? Upon their deaths, the church "family" moved in and cleaned out the house of all saleable merchandise, leaving behind a bewildered family who often did not even get the family heirlooms. I met a few of these "left behind" family members who felt that was a low thing for so-called Christians to do. I absolutely agreed.
I am also reminded that I was 40 years old (a fact that I am not proud of) before I discovered that the passage in Hebrews did not say "forsaking the assembly," but rather said, "forsaking the assembling of yourselves together," which sheds a whole new meaning on the interpretation given by legalistic, but well-meaning(?), law-givers and controllers!
From a Reader in Texas:
I want to thank you for the influence of your writings on my son. He signed up for your Reflections. Even though he is presently worshiping at an "anti" church, they are also grace-oriented (no, that's not necessarily an oxymoron!). We are so very proud of him -- even though he is still in that conservative environment, he has bloomed where he's been planted. He is the song leader at church, and has introduced some contemporary songs there. The preacher there is really a maverick (and, of course, quite suspect in that brotherhood), and the environment is much freer than the majority of the churches in that end of the spectrum of the brotherhood. He forwarded your latest -- Theology Ex Nihilo -- which is so right on target. Too bad we can't somehow legislate (sorry for the legalism!) that periodically everyone be required to re-think and re-evaluate all their sacred cows! Keep up the good work.
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