by Al Maxey

Issue #323 ------- October 29, 2007
I see the church as the body of Christ.
But, oh! How we have blemished and
scarred that body through social neglect
and through fear of being nonconformists.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. {1929-1968}

Being The Church
Reflecting On Identity

The late Dr. Martin Luther King, in his above observation, which was taken from his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" (16 April 1963), conveys a major concern of many with respect to both the identity of this entity we call "the church" and its relevance within society. What is the church, and just exactly what is its purpose and function? Too many of us, I fear, perceive it as little more than a religious institution that must be preserved and protected from the secular society within which it exists. Thus, "the church" exists and functions behind closed doors, sheltered away from the world by our tall walls of exclusion -- a separate spiritual society, secure in its perceived superiority. Become involved in the workings of our communities? Involve ourselves in the political arena? Speak out for social reform? Perish the thought. We're the church. Which, for many, is the equivalent of saying, "We want nothing to do with you. Leave us alone, and we'll leave you alone." Separation of church and state. One can easily see why the world would want this. It's far more difficult to perceive why the church would desire it. I would at this point refer the reader to my following study: Reflections #211 -- Church and State: May Disciples of Jesus Christ Participate in the Political Process? The reader may also find the following study to be of interest: Reflections #232 -- Christians Bearing Arms: May Disciples of Jesus Christ Serve in the Armed Forces?

Ironically, the more we disengage ourselves from society, the less we truly function as the church. Salt kept in a shaker has no impact. A light kept under a cover does not push back the darkness. Yeast kept separate from dough serves no purpose. The church secluded from active involvement with society is irrelevant -- a missional mockery. This prompted Henry David Thoreau [1817-1862] to make the following comment in his Journal (16 November 1858), "The church! It is eminently the timid institution, and the heads and pillars of it are constitutionally and by principle the greatest cowards in the community." What a terribly sad indictment of the very ones who should be leading this great, ongoing spiritual reformation of mankind. A cloistered Christian is an anachronism; a cultural, historical and spiritual anomaly. The one talent man buried his talent in the ground [Matt. 25:25]. I fear too many disciples today bury themselves in their buildings! We have become salt housed inside of crystal shakers: sparkling white, spectacular to behold, stunningly elegant, and supremely useless with respect to our true purpose. Those individual crystals of salt desirous of leaving the glistening shaker and seeking to fulfill their missional imperative are typically viewed by the contented, cloistered contents as a rather radical rabble. "There they go, rocking the shaker again!" And yet, where would we be without ... you guessed it ... rock salt!! (Sorry, couldn't resist that one!)

I believe Dr. King was correct when he opined that we do damage to the Body of Christ when we neglect our social responsibilities. I am not suggesting we carry picket signs, bomb abortion clinics, and "Lynch a Queer for Christ" (a bumper sticker I actually saw). I'm simply suggesting that we live our faith within our society, rather than apart from it. If we are not mingling with the unredeemed, how will we ever touch their hearts and lives for Jesus? If the church does not take a public stand for God, and against godlessness, how can we genuinely claim to be pursuing our purpose in life? If assembling inside of a building a few hours a week to go through the motions of a "worship service," arguing with our spiritual siblings the remaining hours of the week over petty differences in the particulars of our rituals, is the sum total and substance of Christian experience, then my friends -- you can have it. Brethren, I am not suggesting there is no value in our times together. Please don't misunderstand. I'm simply declaring that Christianity is NOT about what happens inside our buildings, but is rather all about what happens outside of them. Christianity is a lifestyle, not a worship style. Confusing the latter with the former will only lead to a fractured Body, rather than a functional Body.

I receive countless letters, emails and phone calls from discouraged disciples all over our nation, and even in distant lands, who lament the fact that too many have seemingly lost sight of what it truly means to BE the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. "Church" has become something we go to. "Hey, kids. It's Sunday morning. You know what that means. It's time to put on our special clothes and go to church." "When will it be over, Daddy?" "By lunch, honey. Now hurry, or we'll be late for church." Sound familiar?! I hope your face is as red as mine. This has become so much a part of our practice that it's even a part of our language. Such expressions fall freely from our lips without thought. We've heard them and used them all our lives. If we ever bothered to give careful thought to these statements, however, we would likely be appalled at the message they convey (at least I hope we would). We're suggesting that "church" is a place to which we go to perform the particulars of a pattern, rather than a people in union with a Person, patterning our daily lives after His. An over-emphasis upon the former, with little practical appreciation of the latter, has become the source of increasing frustration for those disciples who simply seek to be the "church" of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To illustrate the above sense of frustration among so many disciples, consider the following email I received from a dear sister-in-Christ from the state of Kentucky. This is a very sincere, devoted woman, and I've known some of her family for almost 25 years. She wrote: "Dear Bro. Al, I've been reading your Reflections for quite some time now, and I've grown so much by the scholarship you put into your essays. Thank you! I have a question for you: I've grown up in the Churches of Christ, and all of my family is still in this group. I've been living in Kentucky for four years, and I've already been driven out of two Non-Institutional congregations because I don't conform to their ultra-conservative, legalistic views. They don't want me around causing problems! This has actually been a good thing, as well as painful. Frankly, it is so uncomfortable to be a 'man without a country' and not know where to 'go to church,' because 'going to church' is all the 'Christianity' I have ever known. After considering these painful feelings I was experiencing, I decided I wanted to know God as He really is, and not as I have been taught He is. When I honestly read the New Testament (with no agenda and no baggage from my upbringing), I do not see the religious, ritualistic system that we consider the norm today. I see a spiritual body of believers doing their best from day to day, often with different ideas and strengths, moving ahead in their relationship with God to the best of their abilities. The text of the NT doesn't reveal another ritualistic religious institution that would replace the Temple system of the OT, and yet that is exactly what has happened in the past 1500+ years! Then it dawned on me: my own 'religious obligations' over the years had become more important than actually living in a daily relationship with God and Jesus Christ and those within my community. I was overwhelmed by the idea that I needed to look beyond the 'religious structure' that our society says is The Way of Christianity. This was both wonderful and frightening. How do I live this in my everyday life? How can I be the church every day without 'going to church'? 'Going to church' seems to be necessary these days to keep the 'big machine' moving forward, but I don't believe that is truly our purpose as the church. I'm coming to perceive this huge system/institution as superseding true relationship, and yet we hold on for dear life to this organized institution, with its regulated, ritualistic worship, that we call 'Church.' Bro. Al, I am eagerly searching for a way to be the church every day, in every aspect of my life. How do you feel about this (I would appreciate your honesty), and is it attainable?"

Let me begin with just a word of caution: there is probably just as much danger in over-reacting to the perceived institutionalization of the family of God in Christ as there is in one's under-reaction to it. The latter approach tends to hold on to that which is negative, whereas the former tends to cast off that which is positive. As in most pursuits, balance is called for. Some, by way of example, perceiving our Sunday assemblies to be an "institutionalized abomination" in the sight of our Father, have abandoned such structured gatherings on the first day of the week altogether. If they meet with other believers at all, they will meet in small groups of disciples, gathered around a table in a home. This is perceived to be a restoration of the "early church practice," and, in this sense, they do have a point. The gatherings of the early disciples were without doubt far less formal and structured than we typically find today. I have little doubt that if a first century disciple from Antioch or Troas or Berea was to be transported across time and space to one of our "worship services" in Big City, USA, with a throng of 3000 souls sitting in pews facing a stage, pinching crackers and sipping Welch's from a thimble, they would be astounded, as it would not even remotely resemble anything to which they were accustomed. And if we informed them that we had "restored" their practice, they would most likely burst into laughter.

Some are undoubtedly thinking that I am mocking our Sunday assemblies; making fun of the Lord's Supper. Not at all. I value both. What I am deriding, however, is this notion that true Christianity is to be experienced inside of a building on a particular day, in the precise performance of specific acts (only five in number, none of which may be mixed), and that we, and we alone, of all the people on the planet have restored the exactness of the first century practice, and thus all others who differ with us are going to be burned alive without end by our God. Such thinking is so ludicrous, not to mention arrogant, that it deserves to be mocked. Frankly, one has to laugh to keep from crying. If this is indeed what "going to church" is about, then no wonder more and more people are seeking simply to be the church. Brethren, there are tremendous spiritual blessings associated with the assembling of ourselves together. When these times together are genuinely appreciated for what they are, and what they can be, one has to wonder why anyone would want to be anywhere else!! Forsake such an assembly, as is the habit of some [Heb. 10:25]? Never! But when such times have devolved to little more than ritualized, institutionalized social/religious performances, then one can fully understand why numbers are declining. On the other hand, when such assemblies seek to accomplish the aims specified within Scripture, they can be one of the most beautiful and uplifting spiritual events imaginable. I would refer you to my study of this in Reflections #174 -- Abandoning Our Assembling. The same is true of the Lord's Supper. It is not about LAW concerning how much bread or wine, or the composition of either, or the way in which it is broken or consumed, or the containers, or a hundred and one other petty party particulars of some elusive pattern over which we have fussed, feuded and fragmented for centuries. It is a spiritually significant event that celebrates and commemorates the demonstrated love of our Lord for us, and proclaims our love for Him and one another. Those who dare to turn this divine feast into a sectarian food fight need to be booted from the table!

But, back to our primary focus. Is it possible to be the church without necessarily going to church? First, the latter phrase is somewhat of an absurdity. We, the people of God, ARE the "church." We can go to a building; we can go to a certain location where other saints are gathered; we can meet in a home for a meal; we can band together in groups and travel to another land to preach the good news; we can even meet together to discuss the work of the "church." But, the "church," properly understood, is not something the people of God go to. It is who and what they are ... wherever they are ... whatever they're doing in the name of and to the glory of their Lord and Savior. I guess my question to those who say they merely want to be the "church" is, why would you not want to assemble together with your spiritual siblings? Now, if the assemblies to which you are going prove to be destructive to your spirituality (as indeed some are), then you may need to seek to reform those assemblies or seek the company of other, more spiritually-focused, brethren. But, being the church also means being together as one. Obviously, this involves much more than times of physical togetherness in an assembly, but it certainly includes such times.

The real purpose of the One Body of our Lord Jesus Christ on earth is missional, not methodological. Too frequently we base our identity upon our practice rather than our purpose. This is wrong, and it has led to the dismemberment of the Body of Christ. In March, 2006 I wrote a Reflections titled: The Missional Church: A Reflective Evaluation [Issue #240] in which I sought to emphasize the reality of who we are and who we are to be, rather than who we have become. I wrote: "I am convinced that one of the greatest failings of the modern church (and, indeed, the church throughout the ages, for the most part) is that we have largely lost touch with who and what Jesus has called and commissioned us to be. We frequently speak of 'going to the church,' 'having a meeting down at the church,' 'inviting people to our church,' and a thousand and one other such expressions, all of which chronicle our tendency to embrace an institutional, corporate model. We -- the church -- are neither! And yet, one would definitely be hard-pressed to prove that by our terminology and tradition. The church that our Lord established is not an institution, it is an organism; it is not a place, it is a people; it is not about programs, it is about purpose. Over the centuries, many attempts have been made historically to call the people of God back to their intended purpose for being. Several years back, Rick Warren, a Baptist pastor, made some dramatic headway in that direction with his 'Purpose-Driven' philosophy. In more recent times, we are clearly seeing the emergence of the 'Missional-Priority' of the disciples of Jesus Christ. Saints are seeking to become missional communities as a solution to what is perceived as the failure of the institutional, corporate model for the church. This concept is being increasingly embraced across denominational lines."

So, what do we do?! We must awaken within the breast of each disciple of Jesus Christ a sense of purpose; an awareness of their own individual responsibility to be part of a community of believers with spiritual focus. Each Christian must come to a life-altering comprehension of their reason for being, and then act upon it. Individually and collectively we must recapture that missional vision. Which is? I'm glad you asked! I like the way Bro. Fred Peatross, a friend and fellow author, stated it in one of his recent articles in his Abductive Columns --- he wrote, "Missional incarnation means trading church time for time in the water with the fish." That just about says it all. When the church finally gets out of the building and begins becoming a part of the daily lives of the people who live all around them, the church will then become truly relevant. A missional church is a body of believers who daily share Jesus, through all aspects of their lives, with their neighbors.

The missional approach is literally as old as the church of Jesus Christ itself. It is people telling people about Jesus. It is daily caring and sharing with those around you. It is getting involved with your community. It is friendship evangelism ... something that requires no program and no finances. It is swimming with the fish in the sea of life, not floating in some glass fish bowl once a week waiting for someone to come feed you. Take a look at Acts 8:4. When the church had been scattered throughout the land because of persecution, they "went about preaching the Word." They didn't retreat behind four walls to "do church." They were the church, and they impacted the lives of those with whom they came into contact. Christ Jesus calls us to be salt, leaven and light in the world. These aren't kept inside containers, never to be used; hidden under a cover, never to be seen. Christians shine in the darkness; they work themselves into the dough; they flavor and preserve that with which they come into contact. Missional churches understand that they are a people sent forth. As one brother phrased it, "We must live, work, play and minister redemptively in our culture." We are engaged; we are involved; we are relevant. We are not building-bound, but rather community-centered.

Dr. Ed Stetzer, who has authored a good many articles and books on this concept, believes that a missional church must be Incarnational. This simply means that the church (the people of God, both individually and collectively) becomes a living part of its community, not separate from it. The "church" of Jesus, when properly perceived, is simply eternal Truth embodied and on public display. It is love in action on a daily basis. The dear sister from Kentucky wrote, "I am eagerly searching for a way to be the church every day, in every aspect of my life." Sister, I pray that what you have just read will provide you the insight you seek, and that it will motivate you to further investigation into the missional nature of our existence in this physical realm as spiritual lights reflecting the nature of our Father and His Son.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Missionary in Albania:

Dear Brother Al, It's been some time since we've communicated, but I have been blessed by your Reflections for years! We once discussed our mutual friendship with Phil Terry [NOTE: Phil is the minister for the Pearl Harbor Church of Christ in Honolulu, Hawaii. He and I worked together for a number of years on various activities throughout the islands during the six years I was the minister at the Honolulu Church of Christ. Phil, along with his precious wife Sandy, was previously a missionary in the Philippines. -- Al Maxey], with whom I was privileged to serve in the Philippines. After eleven years preaching in Alaska, my wife and I have now been in Albania as missionaries for about sixteen months. In any event, I would love to get in touch with our dear brother in the Philippines who was featured in your most recent article. Please pass along this email to him, if you don't mind. I don't know whether he will recognize my name, but I most certainly recognize the nature of his struggles there, having been involved with many brethren and congregations of the church from Baguio City to General Santos over a period of 22 years. May God continue to richly bless you and your ministry!

From a Critic in Alabama:
NOTE: The following is an email this person sent to about 30 people he knows in the Philippines (with copies to Edward Fudge and me) as a warning. It gives you an idea of the type of people grace-centered brethren, like the young man of whom I spoke in my last Reflections, are having to deal with as they speak out boldly for Christian unity. To his credit, he attached the entirety of my last Reflections (Issue #322) to his email, so these people were at least able to read this article for themselves and make their own decision about the matter. -- Al Maxey

To all my brethren in the Kingdom of our Lord in the work in the Philippines. I am sending you this post so that you can see what we have to deal with in the USA. The "devil" and his teachings are everywhere on this place we call earth. This writer is a preacher and elder in New Mexico USA. He teaches grace only. You can be baptized if you want to, and the social gospel is where his head is. He is very close with Edward Fudge in his teachings on hell. He will worship with or without instruments of music. He also believes in death bed repentance without baptism. This man is to be watched at every turn of your daily lives. Please warn the faithful brethren there that they should not believe anything that he says or writes on spiritual matters. If a preacher that you do not know comes into your midst, question him about being a follower of Al Maxey or Edward Fudge. If they are, then do not fellowship them, for what they teach is not the true and pure gospel of our Lord. I have tried to get him to debate for years, and he won't. All he wants to do is dip his pen in the poisonous teachings of the world and spread a false doctrine that is tearing the church in the USA apart. In short, he is a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Just apply 2 John 9-11 to him and his angels and you will be fine.

From a Minister in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, I recently heard Chuck Swindoll say, "It takes a special man these days to preach the Truth as it is revealed in the Word of God. Most are content to keep their preaching limited to non-controversial scriptures or topics so as not to stir up the members of their church (and especially the leaders of it). They value their employed position much more than they value preaching the Truth of the Word." Blessings to you, Al, as always!

From a Reader in Texas:

Keep up the good work, Bro. Al. It is brothers like you and this young man in the Philippines that keep us all holding firmly to the Cross of Christ and the Word of God. These fierce struggles remind us that though men often betray us and turn from us, God never forsakes us -- especially during the times that seem the darkest.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Bro. Al, Thanks for sharing this young Filipino brother's message with us. I am humbled, and more than a little ashamed at how weak my own spirit might be in the face of such adversity. I have prayed for him and his family, and I will continue to do so. Please keep us all posted on his welfare. God's peace to you, brother.

From a Reader in Arizona:

Bro. Al, The young brother in the Philippines wrote: "Once he actually walked out of the church building at the beginning of my sermon when he saw a picture of Max Lucado on one of my PowerPoint slides." You will be pleased to know, Al, that your photo has been on one of the PowerPoint slides at our congregation the last two Sundays ... and no one has yet walked out!!

From a Reader in Texas:
NOTE: This dear brother has spent decades traveling to and from the Philippines (spending months at a time, at his own expense) to engage in evangelism of these precious people. Although he and I differ on a few things (what two disciples don't?), he is truly more grace-centered and unity-conscious than many of his peers in the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ. I have long admired his spirituality and devotion. -- Al Maxey

Dear Brother Al, You know, even while I believe the Non-Institutional approach to the Scriptures is valid, I am still appalled over the Pharisaism that I see in so many of those pushing this teaching! They do it on an "Or Else!!" basis, which reminds me of the tyrants in John 9 who cast that poor man who had been healed out of the synagogue for daring to stand up to them! After all, one is not allowed to differ with such leaders, right?!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Brother Al, Just a short note on your latest article: "Bereans in the Philippines." I'll continue writing this just as soon as I can clear the tears from my eyes! It is so sad that we humans treat each other this way. I hurt for this young man, and yet he is truly a BIG man! It makes me wonder what God has in store for him. And we think we have problems in this country, when this disciple is putting his very life upon the line for the sake of his love for Christ and His Church. Al, please pass along to him that I will be keeping him in my prayers, and that I hope for his safety. You may also pass along my email address to him if he wishes to correspond. It would be an honor to hear from him. I just wish there was some way I could boost him up. I surely hope all the Reflections readers will realize what a task this man has undertaken and lend him their support. Thank you, Al, for passing this on to us!

From a Minister in Texas:

Good Morning Al, I pray your ministry is going well and that the Lord will continue to open doors of opportunity to you for His Word to be proclaimed all over the world. I just wanted to pass on that I am lifting this Filipino man of God up in prayer, along with his family, seeking in prayer for God to help him have the strength to stand firm for the Truth of the Word while having the wisdom to see what the best avenues are for showing those around him the tremendous freedom we have in Christ! I am praying for God to protect his spirit from discouragement and to provide him and his family with resources of love, accountability, spiritual nourishment, and grace so he will not grow weary fighting the good fight. May the world be filled with those who truly seek to share the love, mercy and grace of our Lord, as it appears this young man is trying to do in the Philippines!

From a Minister in New Jersey:

Bro. Al, I can appreciate the frustration of the young brother from the Philippines. While this brother is trying to effect change from within the legalistic congregation of which he's a part, you might remind him that your own great ministry is from outside that small box. He too would have quite an impact upon countless people by the Grace he displays within his circumstances should he be forced out. That attitude would most likely speak louder for his ministry than his "ousting" would speak for theirs. Throughout history the great movements of reformation and restoration have been led by those who have been pushed out of the confining "boxes." I have the impression that Jesus was not one of the top five on the list of most requested synagogue speakers!

From a Minister/Author in California:

My Dear Brother in Christ, I do want to thank you for all the very informative Reflections I have been receiving. With regard to "Bereans in the Philippines" -- Oh, how I pray for others to imitate the faith of this brother in the Philippine Islands! Brother Maxey, when you write to him, and to his wife, please forward to them my prayers and best regards. I know that they are suffering. When I pray for them I think of both Job and Jeremiah. I also think of Matthew 5:10 -- "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." I will remember him in my daily prayers, and will pass along to my brethren the news of his strong faith, determination and zeal. Brother Maxey, let me also say that your Reflections article on the new heavens and new earth [Issue #310] was indeed a great blessing to me. Now I plan to pass on to the little band of disciples I'm with, in my Sunday morning messages for the next few weeks, the insights I have received from you. Perhaps in presenting this teaching I can make up for lost time! Please keep me in your prayers. May God continue to empower you with His grace and love as you daily preach the message of the kingdom.

From a Minister in Pennsylvania:

Bro. Al, What an inspiring story about that Filipino brother who has the courage to take that next step in his journey. I do not agree, probably, with everything he believes. But, I preach for a congregation where there are doubtless numerous differing views on a great many teachings of Scripture (or teachings of tradition that are presented as though they were Scripture). I believe that every honest Christian brother and sister should be allowed to study the Scriptures for his/her own self and to draw their own conclusions. The church of Jesus Christ is simply every human being who has ever lived, or ever will live, who belongs to Jesus Christ. As I understand it, when a believer repents and is immersed, he puts on Christ and is therefore in the hands of the Lord. I had a Spiritual Sword brother (before there was such a publication -- he later became their editor) who, upon first meeting me, asked what my belief was on a certain doctrine. When I told him he must have written me off, because 10 to 15 years later, when my dad met him and asked him if he knew me, he simply turned around and walked off without a word, leaving my dad standing there with his mouth open! My goal is to go to heaven, and to help as many as possible to go there too. I don't want to have to keep a journal of those with whom I agree 95% or 96% or 45% so that I can either accept them or write them off. I differ with you on some matters, but I defend your right, indeed your duty, to study and search the Scriptures so as to arrive at your own convictions. Keep searching and writing, Bro. Al.

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Brother Al, I am a 74-year-old male, retired after 40 years of working in the psychiatric social work profession. I genuinely loved my work, and I am still able to help people, even though I am no longer in practice. I am also in the sixth generation of heritage within the a cappella wing of the Churches of Christ. My great-grandfather was ordained a minister in the Church of Christ in September of 1881. I even have a copy of the ordination paper which he had recorded at the court house. Anyway, I just wanted to say Bless You for all of the good work that you are doing. Reading your weekly Reflections is like giving me a breath of fresh air. I am so relieved that we in our heritage are now "admitting" that salvation is by grace instead of works! May His grace and peace be upon you!

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