Issue #119 -------
April 17, 2004
Public opinion is a weak tyrant
compared with our own private opinion.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
One of the criticisms Jesus had against the self-righteous religious elitists of His day was their propensity for creating countless laws to bind upon their fellow religionists. On one occasion, Jesus, His voice dripping with sarcasm, declared unto the crowds and His disciples, "You would think these Jewish leaders and these Pharisees were Moses, the way they keep making up so many laws! And of course you should obey their every whim!" (Matthew 23:2-3, LB). Our Lord then proceeded, in this same chapter, to pronounce a series of Woes against these heartless legalists who sought to bind their whims upon others. "They pile heavy burdens on people's shoulders and won't lift a finger to help" (vs. 4, CEV). Jesus had little use for those who taught "as doctrines the precepts of men" (Matthew 15:9).
One would think that the disciples of Christ, especially after the passage of almost 2000 years, would know better than to pattern themselves after the Pharisees. Sadly, however, many are just as legalistic today as the religious separatists and exclusivists were back then. They are still elevating personal preferences and perceptions to the status of divine precept; taking again the "seat of Moses," they continuously create LAW out of their own convictions. In so doing, they incur the same rebuke of our Lord. There is nothing wrong with having strong personal convictions; indeed, such is admirable! However, personal convictions must never be bound upon others as LAW. The apostle Paul wrote, "So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God" (Romans 14:22). In other words, order your own steps according to your own convictions, and allow others to do the same. James, the Lord's brother, made it very clear that "there is only one Lawgiver" (James 4:12) .... and it isn't YOU.
My heart goes out to a very concerned reader from the state of Oregon, who is representative of many who have encountered this rigid mindset. He wrote me the following appeal for help:
If this had happened to me, I'm afraid I would be very tempted to do a bit of "temple cleaning" myself ... of the Jesus with a whip variety! And I would start with the elders. I would insist upon a private meeting with them and I would demand an accounting for why they "called down" my son by name from the pulpit without first coming to me and sharing their concern. Unless they showed just cause for their actions, or repented of them publicly, I would immediately take my family to a more loving fellowship of believers. I would NOT, under any circumstances, allow my family to be exposed to such cultish domination.
Some may regard this response as rather harsh, perhaps even extreme, and might counsel that I simply not "rock the boat" and go along with the judgment of the leadership on this matter. After all, "they are the ELDERS, aren't they? We are supposed to obey the ELDERS, aren't we?!" But, elders in the church can be wrong in their understandings and judgments. If leaders are misguided, and the people blindly follow, Jesus indicated both may well fall into a pit. Timothy was instructed by the apostle Paul to rebuke and correct an elder in the church if he was engaged in activities that were sinful (1 Timothy 5:19-20). Paul had previously warned these very same elders, when he met with them at Miletus, that "from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things" (Acts 20:30). The leadership of a local congregation is not above accountability for poor judgment. If they are attempting to lead the flock in a direction that some perceive to be spiritually harmful, they should be approached about this concern. If they persist in their determination, and prove to be unmovable in their resolve, then those who are concerned have a decision to make. They can either "go along with them," or they can continue to try and reason with them and work for change, or they can take their families where they believe they will find an atmosphere more conducive to spiritual growth in God's grace.
My own personal conviction is that one should never bow to the whims of those who seek to impose their convictions upon others as LAW. To do so is not only to surrender one's freedom in Christ, but is to reject the gift of that freedom which was secured for us by the shedding of the precious blood of our Redeemer. Paul informs us that Jesus, by the offering up of Himself on the cross, abolished the enmity between men that was contained in burdensome ordinances (Ephesians 2:13-18). "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). Paul makes it very clear that if we return to a theology which promotes justification by works of law (any system of law), that we are "severed from Christ" and "have fallen from grace" (vs. 4). It is an affront to the sacrifice of our Savior to submit again to such a yoke of bondage. There were some legalistic "false brethren" who sought to subjugate Paul and the Galatian brethren to their own personal convictions, but Paul very adamantly declared, "We did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you" (Galatians 2:5). The "good news" that Paul was not willing to compromise by bowing to the whims of these legalists was that our Lord Jesus, through His shed blood on the cross, had secured our freedom from bondage to law. To return to law was to abandon Christ and to reject the gospel. Paul refused. So must we!
If there are some in a congregation who believe the Harry Potter books are inappropriate reading, then, by all means, they should not read them. If they choose to read them anyway, violating their own convictions in the matter, then for them this would be a sinful action (see: Romans 14:22-23). "To him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean" (vs. 14). Paul makes it very clear in this chapter that we must order our own lives by our own strong convictions of right and wrong. If we choose to refrain from some action, and we do so "for the Lord," we are blessed. "Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind" (vs. 5).
There are many areas in which sincere disciples of Jesus Christ have genuine differences of conviction with one another as to what is most pleasing to their God and what is the best path for His people to walk. When our convictions are strong, we are not only convinced of their rightness, but we naturally would like for all our brethren to "see it our way." After all, we're right .... these others just haven't "wised up" yet! Or, so we often believe. Paul makes it very clear in Romans 14, however, that even in matters of strong conviction we do NOT have the right to impose those convictions upon our brethren. WE are obligated to live by our own convictions (indeed, it is sinful not to), but we must never seek to force OTHERS to live by them. Paul tells us to "accept" one another, differing convictions and all, and do NOT pass judgment on the convictions and opinions of our brethren (Romans 14:1).
I knew an elderly sister in Christ, when I preached in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who believed with all her heart that it was wrong to go to the "moving picture shows" and to play games with cards. A deck of cards was "the Devil's toy," she believed. She lived by her conviction, but she never sought to impose it upon others. I know another dear sister who believed it was wrong to have any kind of "holiday party" in the church building. When the congregation had any such party, she would not attend. But, she never sought to bind her beliefs upon others, and she never allowed these differing convictions to become conditions upon which she withheld fellowship from her brethren in Christ. Instead, she practiced godly unity in diversity. In so doing, these individuals have shown superior spirituality, and, indeed, have displayed the spirit of Christ.
Are Harry Potter books sinful? Probably no more so than reading Alice in Wonderland or The Hobbit or The Wizard of Oz. Are role-playing games sinful? Is a deck of cards sinful? Is renting a video or DVD sinful? Virtually anything can be sinful, if abused or used inappropriately; however, let's not allow our own personal preferences and convictions to become the standard by which we judge, and seek to regulate, the lives of others. If you think Harry Potter is unfit reading for a Christian, then don't read these books. If others don't see the issue as you do, then grant them the same freedom to determine their own convictions that you have!
My wife, Shelly, loves the Harry Potter books, and she is currently reading her way through the entire series. She can't wait for the next one to come out. My sons, when growing up, loved some of the role-playing games. It didn't "corrupt" them in the least, and they have no difficulty discerning the distinction between fantasy and reality. They did not fall victim to the "dark side" through such activities, any more than other believers have who gather regularly to play cards or go see a movie. If such activities are "not for you," then don't engage in them. Live by your convictions .... and allow others to do the same! It is when we seek to bind our convictions upon others that we play into Satan's hands. Such will only divide the Body of Christ, never unite it.
To the leadership of the congregation in Oregon, I would offer this advice with love and respect for them as my brethren and fellow elders: Lead by example! "Do not lord it over those allotted to your charge, but prove to be examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:3). Yes, be open with them about your convictions; share with them the reasons for your concerns; but never be heavy-handed and domineering over the flock; lead the flock, don't drive them before you! Even Paul was unwilling to "lord it over your faith" (2 Corinthians 1:24). I think that is good advice for leaders today. Jesus summed up the spirit of the problem this way, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you" (Matthew 20:25-26). We must have a different spirit. Let us, as the leaders of His flock, show by example the joys of His grace; let us be accepting, not dogmatic!
From a Reader in Texas:
Thanks for another fine article, Al. On the matter of Fellowship Halls my approach has become a call for consistency wherever a congregation chooses to stand on the matter. I have seen a church provide a fellowship hall, furnish the air conditioning, chairs, tables, insurance, refrigerator, cleaning, repair and maintenance of the hall and then literally "blow up" at buying paper plates, napkins, etc., or at paying for food out of the congregational budget. Consistency? I have also seen those who would say the Fellowship Hall is "Okay" as long as it is not "connected" physically to the worship facility. Good grief! I have much more respect for a congregation who is consistent in their saying "No" to a Fellowship Hall, than I do for a congregation who is not consistent in their use and/or management of a Fellowship Hall.
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Al, is this weird or what?! I was reading some of the articles by Larry Ray Hafley -- www.biblework.com -- and got to one where he condemns fellowship halls. So we shot a few emails back and forth and got things going on the issue. That was yesterday (Saturday). I just got home from Sunday services tonight and checked your Reflections web site. "Fellowship Halls" is your current article!!! Thanks for your efforts! Happy Resurrection Sunday!
From a Reader in Florida:
Al, correct me if I am wrong, but isn't the "fellowship hall" there at Cuba Avenue the old auditorium? At least that is what I recall from the time I worshipped there. It matters not, but Brian Yeager sure does have a burr under his saddle. You know, he may be the "bossy brother," the one who takes our cookies and toys, or who even tattles, but he is still loved. We must, and should, be forgiving; it is hard, but we are called to do that. Only Satan and his forces are we to fight! I'm sending a check in the morning's mail for your Reflections CD. Thanks for your great work. May God continue to bless you.
From a Minister in Ghana, West Africa:
To God be the glory for all that He has done by giving us such persons like you to enlighten us in the gospel. The churches in Ghana face many tremendous problems. Why? Because we think that because of the autonomy we cannot come together to do some work. This has made all the churches in the rural areas start collapsing and going backward instead of going forward. Your Reflections have enlightened me to know that we can form union and come together as a family to do marvelous work in the vineyard of God. We need such kind of teaching as yours in Ghana as the whole. Brother Al, please try to schedule yourself and come to Ghana with this kind of teaching, otherwise churches in rural areas in Ghana will soon die out. May the Lord bless you and your ministry.
From a Reader in New York:
Dear Brother, Thank you for the hard work and good study you put into your Reflections. On the matter of "silence = the condemnation of a practice" ... if the Lord is waiting to condemn us to hell for practices He never even addressed, then we are all indeed on very thin, if not non-existent, ice! That just doesn't seem like the Jehovah of the Scriptures, does it?
From a Reader in New Mexico:
Al, I was devastated by the message from your critic in Alabama. The "Critic" says he's "glad you're in New Mexico and far away from the population of the USA." I live in New Mexico. What am I, chopped liver? I'm quite sure that I am a citizen of the USA, so much so that I am prepared to engage in a public debate on the subject. I propose to debate this gentleman and defend the following proposition -- "Resolved: the state of New Mexico is a subdivision of the United States of America and its citizens are citizens of the USA." If this man is sincere and honest, he will agree to debate me on this issue. By the way, I for one am glad you're in New Mexico, even if we are not recognized by some as citizens of the USA. I just finished my income tax, and I assure you they think I'm a citizen of the USA.
From a Reader in New Mexico:
Dear Al, I just completed your study on Marriage and Divorce -- Down, But Not Out. When I was twenty years old, I had all the answers concerning this subject. As the years passed, I was confronted with so many gut-wrenching situations that I realized I knew nothing about marriage and divorce. Even though I struggled with what I understood, I was unable to believe there was any hope for the person guilty of adultery, dissolving their marriage and entering into an "adulterous" relationship.
Your study has removed a great burden that I sincerely felt for some of my closest and dearest friends. Yes, I have always treated them with love and kindness, but in my heart I believed their "perpetual sin" separated them from God. I have not completed my study on this topic, and perhaps I never will, but you have given me hope that there is hope for those whom I once believed had no hope. Would it be possible for me to get copies of your book? May God bless you in your service in His kingdom.
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Al, your latest Reflections on "Faithless Fellowship Halls" was a masterpiece! What a hoot about Willie the Water Cooler!! Thanks again for your efforts!
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, I don't know about you people in New Mexico, who live far away from the population of the USA (according to your Alabama critic), but in East Texas we can have a fellowship hall and kitchen as long as it is at least ten miles from the church building. I know this because I was sitting in a Wednesday night Bible class when a man in the class told us this. I nearly fell out of my seat laughing!
From an Elder in New Jersey:
Did the early church go apostate in the 3rd century when they began building "worship HALLS"? After all, for the first 50 years or so did they not continue to meet in the Synagogues, before they were kicked out? Or in women's homes? Is that a pattern we should hold? Even 25 years after Jesus, was not Paul going to the Temple for Pentecost? Have I misunderstood his desire to return to Jerusalem from his missionary trip? By the way, we in the NE try to send as much of our population to you as we can. We have plenty of extra (we have a lot of population up here, unlike you in NM).
Just had another thought. Have I missed something else in the Scriptures? Is there a distinction between spiritual life and physical life? I sort of feel I should have a Christian life. Even the early Jews were told to keep the word of God before them, when they rise up in the morning and when they lie down at night, when they walked -- in all they said and did they were to bring glory to God. No wonder people want to pigeon hole God to a specific building on a specific morning -- they have split their lives (dividing the spiritual from the physical) and God doesn't fit into both halves ... sometimes neither half.
From a Minister in Texas:
You did it again! Where did us "preacher types" get our logic?! I got mine at Preston Road School of Preaching back in the early seventies. Fortunately, they have matured somewhat since then, and they seem to be on a more sensical path. Although they did not go so far as to condemn "fellowship halls," they were still VERY much patternists. God is patient!
What was really encouraging was to see a response in your Readers' section from a minister in Ghana, West Africa. I have made many trips there over the years and will be teaching Ephesians and Galatians at the Ghana Bible College in Kumasi. The college has their own private internet system, and I will make it a point to mention your web site! Augustine Tawiah, the President of the College, was my interpreter back in 1986 and '87. He will be here in Texas at the end of April speaking to various congregations about the ongoing work in Ghana. He holds three Masters and one Doctorate, and is working on his second. This is one smart fellow. His desire is to move the brethren there into a better understanding of Grace and away from the problems we have encountered over the years.
From a Reader in New Mexico:
As logos, Jesus was an utterance of God; a message, if you will. Christian religion is, in general, a language (that is, a system of formal symbols and rules used to convey meaning). For example, our stories, our rituals, our creeds, etc. are symbols which each carry their own meaning in Christian faith -- they form the language with which we speak of the message, and the One who uttered it. I see our differing doctrines as typically and simply varying dialects of the Christian language. We argue over language and dialects of a language, instead of focusing upon the message. Unfortunately, much of Christian religion has become a language which does nothing but talk about itself. In the worst of cases, it has become meta-language: a new language about the former language -- another step farther from the message. This is a great error. We need to remember that the message was uttered in the language of a human life lived in the utmost of humility, and not in the pride of religious/doctrinal banter.
From a Minister in New Mexico:
I just ran a quick search ... couldn't find a trace of a "smile" in the KJV. One might conclude God doesn't approve of smiling. So, if one follows the logic of those who insist on specific authority in the Scriptures, one must stop smiling. By the time the NIV was published, even poor old Job could manage a smile, and even speaks of God smiling on the schemes of the wicked.
From a Reader in Alabama:
Attention: The Elders, Cuba Avenue Church of Christ --- Enclosed is a check for $50. Please apply this to the expenses of brother Maxey's Reflections web site. His work is such a great blessing for us. This is just a small token of our appreciation of his work. May God continue to bless this work is our prayer.
From a Reader in Mississippi:
When you stand on the TRUTH people will try their hardest to knock you down. Al, I know your critic in Alabama says he is a Christian, and I know he is very sincere in his beliefs, but there is absolutely no love in him. He is part of the world and will not tolerate the truth. That much is apparent. Given his lack of love, and his intolerance for the truth, it is no surprise that he and others like him heap such abuse on you. I admire your courage, brother. I admire the stand you take in the face of such. May God continue to bless your ministry! Keep up the AWESOME WORK! My hope is that the number of subscribers will double to over 10,000! You are a blessing and an encouragement, brother. Keep on keepin' on!
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