by Al Maxey

Issue #395 ------- April 20, 2009
One generic evil of an institution of any kind
is that people who have identified themselves
with it are prone to make an idol of it.

Arnold J. Toynbee {1889-1975}
An Historian's Approach to Religion

The Swinging Door Church
I Want to Join -- I Want to Leave

I truly hope that each of you will take a moment to reflect very carefully upon the above quote by Arnold J. Toynbee (a noted Oxford educated modern historian). It is extremely insightful and far more representative of our reality than many of us would like to admit. Although there is clearly a place within society for certain institutions, even within the church, nevertheless when institutionalism begins to overwhelm the simplicity of our dynamic relationship with the Father through the Son, and our interpersonal relationships with our fellow spiritual siblings, we are in dire straits indeed. Reducing the Family of God to a cold, sterile institution can quickly lead to our deterioration and, if not halted, our demise. The Body of Christ must be living, growing, changing ... not stagnating under the imposing, impeding force of institutionalism. Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), an American historian, asked, "What is any established institution but a Society for the Prevention of Change?!" I sincerely believe that, in many ways, he has a valid point, and he has certainly, in this statement, correctly characterized too many movements within Christendom.

When we reach the point where we begin placing greater emphasis within our teaching and preaching on the particulars of some perceived pattern within Scripture, rather than upon the Person to whom those inspired writings point, then we are, in a word, idolatrous. We walk right past the Substance in order to bow before the shadow! Jesus said the following of the hardened legalists of His own day (and this truth applies to those today as well), "They worship Me in vain, for their teachings are but rules taught by men" [Matt. 15:9]. Thus, "you nullify the Word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites!" [vs. 6b-7a]. Jesus had no use whatsoever for this misguided mindset, for their worship was idolatrous -- being focused more upon tradition than Truth. It was the elevation of law over grace, and such an approach to justification and salvation would leave the seeker deprived of both, as well as "alienated from Christ" [Gal. 5:4], who alone is the basis for our justification and salvation.

In Christendom today, however (and this has long been the case throughout religious history), our various institutions, and the rather rigid systematic precepts and practices generally associated with such, have dominated the landscape to such an extent that they have become the very standard by which faithfulness, fellowship and even salvation are measured. And given the diversity of dogmatic demands from the various sects and factions within Christendom, it is little wonder that the common observer of all this is utterly confused by what he or she daily beholds. Just who has "cornered the market" on Truth? Each group claims to have done so, while vigorously and viciously condemning all those around them who refuse to bow to their particular perceptions and practices. Even within such groups there is open warfare: brother slaying brother over which aspects of the "pattern" should be imposed upon the rest of humanity. Evangelism, therefore, has been reduced to little more than the members of one sect seeking to "convert" the members of all other sects to their own tradition. Our operative assumption is that people around us already know about the Savior; our mission is to impose upon them our Shibboleths. The result is the continual movement of members within movements -- in and out, in and out, in and out. We have become "swinging door churches," while the lost sit neglected on our doorsteps.

I Want To Join

With the wide diversity of Christian groups today, each purportedly in sole possession of a perfect perception of ultimate Truth, it comes as no surprise that there is significant curiosity among believers as to the nature of the beliefs and practices of those around them. This curiosity will quite often lead to visits, questions, dialogue and, at times, even a desire to "switch churches" if the new group appears to be offering something that may meet the specific needs of the seeker (needs which they may perceive their present group unwilling or unable to satisfy). For example, this past Monday I received a brief email from an individual in which he simply asked: "What denomination are you in? Your writings make sense." I sent him a single sentence reply -- "I'm with the group known as Church of Christ, which is a part of the Stone-Campbell Movement." A few hours later he replied simply -- "What are the requirements to become a member?" Then, just prior to going to bed that evening, I received one more brief note from him -- "Since emailing you, I have done a little research into Stone and Campbell. Are these men the ones who started the Disciples of Christ and Christian Church?"

This was a very brief, rather impersonal, exchange with a gentleman about whom I know absolutely nothing. I don't know his religious background, I don't know his needs or desires or goals in life, and I don't even know where he lives. And yet, his questions intrigued me!! I informed him that they had really moved me to want to give him more than a quick email response, and that, if he didn't object, I would seek to provide a more thoughtful response via my Reflections. Therefore, allow me to take some time to address some of the things brought out in this quick email exchange.

First, as most any church historian will tell you, Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) and Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) worked together somewhat to try and bring about much needed reform within a number of the existing Protestant groups, seeking to help the Christians in these various denominations to perceive one another as brethren, thus striving for greater oneness and harmony. It was never their intent to "start a church." In time, however, their reform movement began to take on a life all its own, and, sadly, by the early years of the 20th century it had not only devolved from a movement to a separate religious institution, but it had divided into three major denominations -- the Disciples of Christ, the Christian Church, and the Churches of Christ -- with each of these groups further dividing into various warring factions. What began nobly as a reform/unity movement, had instead become one of the most divided and divisive denominational institutions in the history of American Christianity. Thankfully, in recent years there have been (and still are) attempts to unify these brethren once again, and to return our focus to a Person, rather than the petty particulars of a pattern, thus seeking a genuine unity in the former, rather than a forced uniformity of the latter. Some progress is being made, but it will be a long journey, and not without significant opposition from the factional leaders who have a vested interest in maintaining the division and protecting their party distinctives (which they perceive to be salvific).

The reader, after examining some of my writings, believed that what I was teaching made sense. As a result, he sought to learn something about my "denomination." As many within my faith-heritage know, the "D" word is almost guaranteed to generate a very negative response from the ultra-conservative wing of the Churches of Christ. "We are NOT a denomination," they will insist (and with great vigor). And yet, no one is fooled by this denial except those persons making it. Denying the obvious only makes us appear foolish before everyone around us. By every aspect of the definition of the term, we are indeed a "denomination" -- a reality that certainly flies in the face of the confident claim by extremists among us that WE are the ONLY Christians; WE are the ONE, TRUE CHURCH ... everyone else is going straight to hell. Only WE have perfect understanding of everything within Scripture; only WE worship in a pleasing manner before our God. Everyone else's worship is an abomination in His sight. What outrageous arrogance!!

Some of us (and this is true of other groups as well; it's not just us) need a heaping helping of reality. We need to get over ourselves, but this will not happen until we can bring ourselves to finally admit who and what we are ... and that is perhaps the most difficult step for those deluded and/or in denial. AA meetings typically begin with an individual standing before others and declaring, "My name is ______, and I'm an alcoholic." This acknowledgement is a necessary first step toward personal transformation. A growing number among us have awakened to the reality of who and what we are with regard to our religious heritage, and for many it was a painful awakening. No, our little group is NOT the "One, True Church" in its entirety upon the face of the planet. Yes, there ARE genuine Christians in other groups besides our own. No, we do NOT have a monopoly on Truth; we are NOT the only people on earth who have it "all figured out." We ain't even close!! What hubris to piously sit in judgment upon everyone else as though we alone "have arrived." That's just how the Pharisees felt during the time of Jesus, and our Lord's most scathing rebukes were leveled against these rigid religionists. You'd think we'd learn!!

When someone asks us, "What denomination are you in?" or "What church do you belong to?", let's try a different approach; let's provide them with an answer that makes sense, not one that just makes us look dense! We have been guilty of the latter far too long. Rather than jumping all over someone for daring to use the "D" word in connection with us, wouldn't it be far better to simply declare that we are disciples of Jesus Christ, members of the universal One Body of all believers, and that our association is with that group of believers within the Stone-Campbell Movement known as Churches of Christ. Brethren, there's nothing shameful about acknowledging that we embrace certain traditions, or that we have specific personal preferences in how we express ourselves in worship before our God. We are all different, and there is nothing wrong with that. Our common bond, however -- that reality which unites us all as One Body -- is JESUS and our FAITH in Him. Traditions vary; Truth is constant. The former may determine our earthly associations; the latter determines our eternal identity.

Is there anything wrong with people wanting to "join us" (i.e., become associated with one of our congregations) because they may find some of our traditions and practices, and perhaps even our teaching in certain areas, more in tune with their spiritual needs? Of course not. Again, we are all different, and we all have unique needs that require relevant spiritual attention. The type of worship style that may bring encouragement to one person, might utterly confuse and discourage another. The beauty of the Christian faith, quite frankly, is that it is not forever frozen in just one style, or one set of traditions, or one culture or society. The Christian faith can be expressed, and lived out daily, in any time or place, and by any group of people, whether primitive or modern. Truth transcends tradition, although the latter may very well express it; Person transcends pattern, although the latter may very well honor and glorify Him; Christ transcends custom, although He may very well be evidenced through these diverse customs of our world's many cultures. Those who seek to limit and restrict our Lord to any one pattern or tradition or custom have in effect dethroned the I AM and confined Him to our self-inflated WE ARE.

Joining with US does not determine one's salvation; joining with HIM, however, does. Our associations may very well help or hinder our walk with Him, but they are not necessarily reflective of that walk with the Lord. That is all about relationship with Him, not about association with us. Sadly, far too many of us throughout history have missed this point. The beloved apostle John, for example, was actually attempting to hinder the ministry of another disciple of Christ simply because that man was "not following along WITH US" [Luke 9:49; Mark 9:38]. Jesus had to inform John that whether or not this man ever followed along in their little group was totally irrelevant to the man's standing with the Lord Himself. The latter is not conditioned upon the former. It wasn't then, and it isn't now. Joining people to our group or "church" or movement, so that they will follow our traditions, is NOT the goal of evangelism; joining people to JESUS, and helping them follow in HIS footsteps, IS. When we finally accept this great truth, many of our sectarian walls will crumble around us, and we will finally begin seeking to call the lost from out of the darkness, rather than seeking to call the saved from out of the denominations.

What are the requirements for becoming a member? Well, that depends upon whether you are seeking to join with Jesus or join with a group of His disciples. It is by grace through an active, visible faith that we are "added to the Lord." When we have been united with HIM, He will then "number us together with" all the other saved ones (the universal One Body of believers in Christ Jesus). We are then "members of the church" --- the ONE church. That "one, true church" is not any one particular faith-heritage, denomination or movement, nor any faction thereof. Rather, it's comprised of ALL those the world over (past, present and future) who are "in Him" by His grace through their demonstrated faith. If you are "in Christ" you are in the One Body; if you are "in the Church of Christ," you may or may not be in the One Body. Following along with US is not the determining factor for salvation; following along with HIM, however, IS. I would love to have more and more people come and associate with, fellowship with and labor for the cause of Christ with us; that would really edify me. The goal of my ministry, however, is not to "preach people into the Church of Christ," but rather to "preach people into the Christ of the church." There is a vast distinction here that far too many of us have failed to perceive, and the schisms, sects and factions that surround us (all filled with squabbling spiritual siblings) is evidence of that dismal failure. It's time to cease preaching and teaching us and our human traditions, and begin preaching and teaching Him and His divine Truths. In so doing, we will actually begin to realize in our daily interactions the answer to our Lord's prayer in John 17.

With regard to the "requirements" for association with a local congregation of believers, that is almost entirely up to that particular group of believers (as it should be). Seekers need to understand that each congregation (regardless of its faith-heritage) has its own individual personality and dynamic. Each is unique, because it is made up of men, women and young people who are quite diverse in their backgrounds (ethnic, social, educational, cultural), perceptions, personal preferences, and the like. If, by way of example, you prefer a contemporary worship style in the Sunday morning assembly, there are congregations that provide that. If that style is not what best addresses and meets your own spiritual needs at this point in your quest, then there are congregations that may have a style of worshipful expression much better suited to you. Neither style is right or wrong, good or bad. They're just different ... as we are. If you do not appreciate the use of instruments as an aid to singing, then I would strongly suggest you not try and associate with a group that uses them. You will not find spiritual fulfillment there, and you may just prove to be a thorn in the side of these good brethren. Most congregations are more than willing to welcome anyone into their midst as long as these individuals are there to learn and grow spiritually, and are willing to respect the traditional preferences and practices of that group. Again, the beauty of the Christian faith is that it can be evidenced and expressed in countless ways and in various cultures. It is not a "one size must fit all" faith; diversity is no problem when Truth reigns supreme in the hearts of believers ... it is only a problem when Tradition reigns supreme! The latter demands compliance to form, the former allows freedom of faith. We've got a number of people from several different denominations associating and worshipping with us each week ... including a Conservative Jew. All are welcome, none are turned away, as long as they are there to learn and grow spiritually.

I Want To Leave

People seeking to associate with us is only one side of the proverbial coin, however. There are others who seek to disassociate themselves from us. Just as there are those who want to join, there will always be those who want to leave. A reader in the beautiful state of Georgia wrote me just the other day, saying, "Brother Al, Our congregation is suffering a problem that seems to be universal in the brotherhood, and that is people losing interest. These Christians seem to slowly drift away and finally disappear, especially our young people. We really love these brothers and sisters in Christ, some of whom are even our children! Please help us!! I've written to you before, and really appreciate what you are doing." My heart truly goes out to this dear brother. It is not easy to witness the growing apathy within our brothers and sisters in Christ, and it is especially difficult when we see this happening with our own children.

I need to make an extremely important distinction here; one that is going to be quite difficult for some to accept (and I realize that I will be "tossed up on tongues" for saying this). There is a world of difference between those who leave a congregation because of increasing spiritual apathy, and those who may choose to leave because of increasing spiritual awareness. In the first group, the fire in their hearts is burning out -- getting colder and colder. Thus, they drift away little by little until one day we notice they are no longer there. In the latter group, on the other hand, the flame within their hearts may actually be burning brighter and hotter. They may be on fire to spend their lives in service to the Lord in ways unavailable to them in their present setting; they may be fervent in their desire to express their devotion in worshipful ways "not approved" in their current congregation. Such people will inevitably reach that point where they feel the need (for their own spiritual survival) to leave one group of believers (whom they continue to love dearly) in order to associate with another group more in keeping with their own needs at that particular time in their spiritual journey. By leaving a particular congregation, or even a particular denomination, they have not necessarily, by that departure, "left the faith" or "abandoned the church." Indeed, to be perfectly blunt, they may have finally found it.

This is especially true of the younger generations, for whom "brand name loyalty" is very rarely a determining factor in how, when and where they choose to serve their Lord and Savior. They have come to appreciate the fact that loyalty to Him is of far greater importance than loyalty to any one group (or to any sect or faction thereof) ... even if that group or faction happens to be the one in which they were raised, and in which their families and friends still remain. In an institutional climate (religiously speaking) where such individualism of thought and choice is greatly frowned upon, if not outright condemned, deciding to leave can prove to be a heart-wrenching and personally costly choice indeed. And yet, more and more are making this choice in congregations where conditions are not conducive (in their view) to their own spiritual well-being. Yes, let's sit down with these individuals and seek to understand why they feel the need to seek another fellowship. In so doing, we may discover areas in which we, as a congregation, can improve so as to better meet their needs. However, if their needs are beyond the scope of our own present congregational dynamic, then let's be big enough and gracious enough to pray with them that God will lead them to fertile fields of service, and that they may grow greatly in His grace. These people are not our enemies; they are not traitors and defectors. In the vast majority of cases, they are simply honest believers who are hungering and thirsting for what our congregation or denomination may not be willing or able to give them at this time. If others are capable of meeting what may well be legitimate needs, then allow them to leave with our blessing! Those who are legalistic patternists will NOT be able to do this, of course. In their view, those who leave them have left the Lord. However, if you are grace-centered and Jesus-focused, then you will realize that relationship with HIM transcends association with US. Where the two exist together, all are blessed. But, at times, one must leave the latter to find the former.

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Publisher: (301) 695-1707

Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Kansas:

Brother Al, One Cup man here. The congregation I am at uses one loaf and one cup when we partake of the Lord's Supper. I've communed this way for 30 years and have no intention of changing my practice. I will not violate my conscience by partaking of the Lord's Supper in any other way. However, I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me on this practice, and yet we continue to be in fellowship with one another. I have no desire to "cut them off" just because we happen to disagree on this aspect of the Lord's Supper --- or a host of other biblical subjects. Christians can assemble with One Cup congregations or they can assemble with Multi-Cup congregations, as long as each are honoring their personal convictions and remembering that they are all members of the same Body. May God bless all who are seeking unity in Christ.

From an Elder in Kentucky:

Brother Maxey, Some of the ladies where I am an elder decided that they would like to make and bake our Communion bread instead of using the Matzo's we had been purchasing for many years. They are using a recipe that uses olive oil and salt (no leaven), whereas the Matzo's only made use of water and flour. As you can imagine, the texture and taste are not the same as the long used Matzo's, and a few of our members are even questioning whether this new "bread" is "Scriptural" to use in the Communion service! Well, at any rate, I have been doing a good bit of reading of your Reflections about the Lord's Supper, and I want to thank you for your research and your writings, and for making these so accessible to so many people. You've certainly helped me to start thinking in a whole new way, and have opened my eyes to many Truths that had been hidden from me for so long. Love and Hugs to you!!

From a Reader in California:

Dear Brother Maxey, I really appreciate you responding to all of my emails, and I especially enjoyed your Reflections article on the One Loaf. I live in Los Angeles (in the Pasadena area) with my wife, who is a nurse, and attend at the church in Malibu at Pepperdine. I am an actor, and really enjoy the work. That is why I was impressed to learn from your article on the movie "Chocolat" (Reflections #198) that your wife Shelly had been an extra in the western movie "A Gunfight" (with Johnny Cash and Kirk Douglas), and that her dad was actually one of the main characters in the movie. Brother, I so enjoy your Reflections, and try to go back through the archives and read one a day. May the Lord bless you greatly for all your hard work --- you are saving souls!!

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Dear Brother Al, While I very seldom pick up my "electronic pen" to write to you, please be assured that I, as well as many other of my Carolina friends, read you very carefully and pass along your essays, both new and old, to those who might ask questions of us for which your relatively short treatments are exactly what they need to hear! Al, I immediately thought of you, and some of your critics, when I read the following quote from the writings of Alexander Campbell in the Millennial Harbinger (which was placed on the Stone-Campbell forum by Dr. Tom Olbricht). Be comforted, my brother ... you could be in far worse company than that of Alexander Campbell.

From a Missionary in India:

Dear Brother Al, Thank you for your comprehensive Reflections articles on the hair issue (Reflections #216 -- "Head Coverings for Women: Local Custom or Universal Command?" and Reflections #276 -- "Trim Not Thy Tresses: The Snipped Hair Hairesy"). They were both very helpful and enlightening.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother Al, I have not written to you in many months, but I just wanted you to know that I am still reading your Reflections, and that I am still receiving a lot of inspiration and encouragement from your writings. Thank you!

From an Elder in Missouri:

Brother Al, With regard to "The One Loaf Debate," how odd it is that we can take any small part of a very meaningful event such as this and make it into some kind of rigorous, almost tedious, act of ritualistic legalism, while at the same time lose the meaning of the observance altogether. I appreciated your reader's dilemma, and I also appreciated his honest questioning of the belief system to which he had been adhering. I have been there many times myself. What he has done is what we all should be doing, and I really appreciate your efforts in aiding us in the consideration of such great questions and challenges. You are clearly not trying to replace or destroy any person's faith, but simply tasking us with discerning what is God's Truth versus what is "truth" according to man's teachings. As always, Al, keep up the hard work you are doing!

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