by Al Maxey
Issue #750 -------
June 21, 2018
God builds His temple in the heart
on the ruins of churches and religions.
Ralph Waldo Emerson [1803-1882]
One of the things that has long troubled me in over four decades of serving as a leader among the people of God is that there is so much confusion over the nature and identity of what has come to be called "the church." It has been viewed organizationally, institutionally, denominationally; we "go to church" in our finest "church clothes" ... we hear people urged to "attend the church of your choice" ... we hear self-proclaimed disciples of Jesus denouncing other self-proclaimed disciples of Jesus because they "go to that church instead of this church." And we wonder why the world around us is confused? Brethren, it is because WE are confused!! We have lost sight of who we really are ... and Whose we really are! We are so lost in the religious, factious, sectarian maze of Churchianity, that we have completely lost sight of the beauty and simplicity of Christianity! Frankly, it is shameful ... and pitiful. A number of my recent adult Bible class series on Sunday mornings have been devoted to proclaiming (and recording) the divine solution to this lack of discernment among disciples. These recorded series are also available to anyone who would like to acquire copies: "A Study of the New Covenant Church: Identity -- History -- Mission" (Click Here to order, and for more information on this series of lessons) ... "A Study of the Epistle to the Colossians: Becoming a Christ-Centered Church" (Click Here) ... "A Study of 1st Corinthians: Christian Counsel for a Confused, Conflicted Church" (Click Here).
For many, many years, and in a number of different venues, I have been calling my fellow believers to unite around a Person rather than a pattern or a position or a party. "The church of the living God is the pillar and support of truth" (1 Timothy 3:15), not of human tradition. This "truth" is not a collection of religious regulations and decrees inferred, deduced and assumed by fallible men as they search the Scriptures; rather, "truth" is the embodiment of the nature and example (in word and deed and attitude) of Jesus. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me" (John 14:6). Jesus told the misguided religionists of His day, "You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; yet it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life" (John 5:39-40). Two millennia have passed and too many are still searching the Scriptures for "truth," when TRUTH stands right before them in the Person of Jesus the Messiah! "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). The great tragedy is that Jesus "came to His own, but those who were His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11) ... and they are still not willing to receive Him even to this day. Why? Because they're too busy looking for "truth" (which they seem to believe consists of legalistic patterns and precepts assumed and inferred which they may then impose) to perceive TRUTH which sets us free. "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. ... If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:32, 36). Let me be blunt: some are so enamored with the CHURCH of Christ that they don't have time for the CHRIST of the church!! Or, as The Message phrases John 1:11 - "He came to His own people, but they didn't want Him."
We're not looking for a Body, we're looking for a building; we're not seeking a Savior, but a sect; we have no yearning to join with an Individual, but an institution; Family has been forfeited in favor of faction. Page after page after page in the Yellow Pages of your local phone book is devoted to helping "seekers" find "the church of his/her choice" - and there are plenty of them. And, yes, OUR group and YOUR group are listed there, along with countless feuding factions and squabbling schisms of each. We have plenty of choices, don't we? Yet, I fear our beloved Jesus is standing off to the side (never having made the Yellow Pages) simply calling to this confused, conflicted crowd, "Come! Follow ME!" Yet, we don't hear Him, for our ears and senses are assaulted by the clamor, coming from every direction, of: "Come to OUR church, for WE are the one, true church! WE are the only ones favored by God. All others are apostates!" It is only by the love, grace and mercy of our one Father that He has not sent forth a firestorm and incinerated the lot of us!! It is time for ALL of us to take off our shaded sectarian spectacles (by which we only succeed in making a spectacle of ourselves) and begin making an effort to perceive "the church" for what our Lord intended it to be. And I assure you: it is NOT what we have made it to be, or too often believe it to be!
Almost daily, and most certainly weekly, I see evidence that otherwise intelligent and well-meaning brethren have fallen into the deadly delusion that they and their group are the only believers on the planet who have found God's favor, and that they and they alone constitute the "one true church" of our Lord. This is not limited to the group denominated in the Yellow Pages "Church of Christ," but is an arrogant attitude found in a great many different groups. However, let me address this delusion as it appears within my own denomination, for that is the religious heritage within Christendom with which I am most familiar. Anyone who knows anything about the historical religious group denominated "Church of Christ" knows only too well that we were once known as "those people who believe they are the only ones going to heaven, and that their church is the 'one true church' of Christ, while all others are godless 'denominations' destined for Hell." Almost all who have this mindset will practically foam at the mouth if you suggest their group is no less a "denomination" than those groups around them which they condemn. "THEY are denominational; WE are not," they will swear. Yet, their actions and attitudes make it clear to even a casual observer that their assertion is, in fact, ludicrous. "We just want to be the people of God; a small 'c' church, not a large 'C' church." Really?! The Christian Chronicle addressed this matter in their publication dated March 30, 2018 in an article titled "Big C or little c?" The author writes, "'Much ink has been spilled about how Churches of Christ are not a denomination,' said Alex Ritchie, a member of the Woodbury Church of Christ in Minnesota. 'While this may have been true to previous generations, this claim falls flat to younger Christians. ... We can no longer claim to be nondenominational.'" I too have dealt with this in an article titled "Sectarianism's C-ism Schism: Upper Case or Lower Case Church?" (Reflections #520). More and more of those within this denominated historical movement are seeing through the delusion that we, and we alone, ARE the "one true church."
Unfortunately, there are still a good many within our group (and the same is true of many within other named groups) who simply can't, or won't, see the inconsistency of such ignorant assertions. I was really saddened the other day when our congregation received a packet from the World Bible School (WBS) advertising a new translation of the Bible. On the front of the envelope, in which these materials were placed, there was a picture of this version and under it these words: "Finally, an accurate, trustworthy, affordable Bible for churches of Christ." Wow! Were they talking about a version that could be used by believers all over the planet? No, they were talking about a version that could be used to validate the traditions and understandings of one particular group (i.e., the Church of Christ church). The JW's have long been criticized for putting out a version of the Bible compatible with their views, but then this particular wing of the Stone-Campbell Movement turns around and does the same thing. What foolishness! It's like the fable of The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen (first published in 1837): no one was really fooled by the emperor's delusional behavior, the people saw right through it, even though their deluded leader could not (or would not). There are none so blind as those who will not see!! Indeed, some are so self-deluded that they cannot see. They are so steeped in this arrogant conviction that they have fallen victim to "a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false" (2 Thessalonians 2:11). It is virtually impossible to reason with them, yet by exposing them and their delusion, we may have a chance at salvaging some of those who are falling under their spell.
As I have pointed out many times previously, one of the chief purveyors of this "one true church" delusion is an elderly preacher by the name of Hugh Fulford, who sends out a periodical by email titled "Hugh's News & Views." He bemoans what he perceives to be a wide-spread attempt by some (myself included, or so he thinks) to "denominationalize" the Lord's church. I, of course, do NOT teach any such thing, but Hugh, by his own admission, refuses to read much of anything I write, unless certain things are called to his attention. If he were more familiar with my work, perhaps he would amend his opinion of the nature of it. Like Hugh, I do not even remotely consider the universal One Body of Jesus Christ (the "church") to be denominational or sectarian or factional. Just the opposite! That "one true church" is simply the totality of ALL who are "in Christ Jesus" by virtue of God's grace and their faith. Those within this One Body may be very different in how they understand and apply certain aspects of our worshipful attitudes and actions during the course of our walk with Him. We are certainly not all alike. We may vary greatly on some of our worship traditions, for example. We may vary on how best to carry out our mission to share our faith and show love and mercy to those around us. But if we are believers, and we are attempting to the best of our abilities, understandings and opportunities to walk in the light with Him, then we are a part of that universal One Body. There is only ONE church: HIS church. If you are in Him, then you are in it. Hugh will say the very same thing. Indeed, he has done so. BUT, where Hugh and I differ very dramatically is: I do NOT, and never will, equate that universal One Body with the religious group denominated "Church of Christ." My association is with that group; my parents and grandparents were part of this group and its traditions; that particular wing of an American religious movement is my faith-heritage (by virtue of my birth to parents who were in it), but my "membership" (if I may use that term) is in something much vaster in scope than this small faction of a movement. I am a part of His universal Family, and ALL other believers, regardless of their traditions and understandings, are my brothers and sisters. The One Shepherd has only One Flock ... but, He has many folds within that One Flock, and my primary association (for daily work and worship) is with one of these many folds. However, I am perfectly willing to meet with, work with, worship with, fellowship with those believers in other folds as well, for they, like me, are also part of the One Flock. For men like Hugh, however, his little fold IS the One Flock. He equates them. And that, my friends, is a sectarian concept of the church, not a biblical concept.
In the past few days and weeks, Hugh has sent forth several editions of his periodical mentioned above, and these particular editions have dealt with the very thing about which I have been speaking in this current Reflections. On May 29 he sent the article "A Biblical Concept of the Church" ... on June 5 he sent the article "Am I a Member of a Denomination?" ... and on June 19 he sent the article "The Language of Ashdod." Much of what he writes in these articles (and in past articles) sounds as though it could have come directly from my own pen. I agree with a great deal of it. Yet, in each of these articles he leaves the reader with no doubt that the One True Church is exclusively, in its entirety, the group designated in the Yellow Pages as "Church of Christ." Yes, Hugh, I have many beloved spiritual siblings in this named group, BUT I also have many beloved spiritual siblings in other named groups. Some of my beloved brethren in these other folds have traditions and understandings that differ from my own. That makes them no less my brethren, for we have the same Father and are in the same Family. I believe the Father has children dwelling throughout His household (the church, if you will), whereas Hugh believes the Father's children only dwell in the west wing of the second floor. Hugh will swear with his dying breath that he is NOT suggesting this, which is why I am pleading with each of you to go and read these articles in their entirety for yourselves. Write Hugh and ask for copies; or, I can send you a copy of each. Read each one carefully. Am I the only one who sees this in his articles? I am asking you to check it out and let me know. If I am wrong, I will happily and quickly apologize to Hugh and my readers. But, if in fact he is teaching this, then we need to expose it lest people be led down the false path of Churchianity over Christianity.
Let me just give you an example of what I'm talking about. In the first of the three articles mentioned above, Hugh wrote, "No one with a biblical concept of the church of Christ and a committed loyalty to the Lord could ever leave the church of Christ to join a denomination or a community church." Hmmm. Weren't all the "churches" of the NT pretty much "community" churches? The church in Thessalonica ... the church in Rome ... the church in Corinth ... etc. It is rather clear what Hugh is saying here, though: if you join yourself to any named group other than the named group he associates with ("Church of Christ"), then you have LEFT the church. Really?!! I suppose IF the "one true church" is the one named in the Yellow Pages under "Church of Christ," THEN you have indeed "left the church" to join something that is NOT the church. However, if "the church" is simply the Father's beloved children, then they haven't "left the church" just by associating (working, worshipping) with a group of other believers/beloved children who may have traditions and practices more in line with their own. We don't have to be TWINS to be BROTHERS (or sisters), we just have to have the same Father. We don't have to be in the same FOLD to be in the same FLOCK. If a sheep leaves one fold and goes to another, he is no less a part of the One Flock. I am in the One Church, but I have close associations with beloved brethren in a number of named groups. These are still my brethren; they are still "the church." It is a bit subtle, but it hits you like a 2x4 between the eyes when you read Hugh's articles: he is equating the One Church universal with his little group. He will dance all around it, and quibble over terminology, but this is exactly what he is doing ... and it is here that I take serious issue with his teaching! It is false, and it needs to be exposed as such!
From a Reader in Unknown:
I really appreciated your thorough examination of the Greek in John 3:16 in your latest article "The 'Shall' or 'Should' Debate: Scrutinizing the Subjunctive in John 3:16" (Reflections #749). I am not a Greek scholar, so I have no comment on the general discussion presented in your study. My comment, rather, is that I have no reason to actually believe these were in fact the words of Jesus to Nicodemus. I think John 3:16 is, instead, John's own commentary on the encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus. This was John's pattern of writing, and it seems to me that this fits with the pattern John liked to use. So, if one doesn't have a "red letter edition" showing Jesus' words, how are we to know whether it was Jesus who actually said those words or John providing commentary? Would you respond to this question for me? Thanks!
"Commentators are divided as to whether verses 16-21 are a direct continuation of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus or whether they represent only the author's comment on Jesus' words" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 50]. "In the first century there were no devices such as inverted commas to show the precise limits of quoted speech. ... Perhaps the dividing point comes at the end of vs. 15. ... But in vs. 16 the death on the cross appears to be spoken of as past, and there are stylistic indications that John is speaking for himself" [New International Commentary, p. 228]. Others, however, feel just as convinced that it makes more sense if these are the words of Jesus. "Why a new paragraph should begin at this verse is hard to see since the connection with 'gar' both here and in vs. 17 is close. The fact that the dialog stops, also all forms of personal address such as 'thou' to Nicodemus, is naturally due to the simple didactic nature of what Jesus says and begins already at vs. 13, where, if for such a reason a paragraph is to be made, it might be made. The idea that a new paragraph starts with vs. 16 because Jesus' words stop here and John's own reflections are now added, is contradicted by the two 'gar,' by the close connection of the thought, which runs through to vs. 21, and by the absence of even a remote analogy for a conversation or a discourse that goes over, without a word to indicate this, into the writer's own reflection" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 258]. From my own personal study, it appears that most scholars believe the passage is a continuation of Jesus' own words to Nicodemus, even though there are indeed some legitimate textual stylistic challenges to this view. Regardless of which view one takes, however, the truths found in this passage remain the same. "In either case, they express the most important message of the Gospel (emphasized elsewhere in many ways): that salvation is a gift received only by believing God for it" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 50]. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Brother Al, what, in your view, is the "stumbling block" or "obstacle" in Ezekiel 3:20?
In Ezekiel 3 we find the Lord appointing this prophet to be His spokesman (vs. 4) and Israel's watchman (vs. 17). By sharing with the people the divine warnings against unrighteous attitudes and actions, he sought to turn the people to the paths of righteousness, and save them from their detour toward destruction. The angels truly rejoice when a willful sinner turns from the path he/she had been walking. On the other hand, how disturbing it is to behold one who was righteous turning away from his prior journey on the highway of holiness! Since God desires no one to perish, but all to come to repentance, He will attempt to place obstacles in the path these people have chosen to follow. The purpose of these obstacles is NOT to cause these people to sin (they are already doing that), rather it is designed to hinder them, and even awaken them perceptively and spiritually to the consequences of their choice. As they stumble and fall, perhaps they will begin to perceive the folly of their chosen path and thus repent. If, however, they persist willfully in their choice, these obstacles could prove to be not only objects of warning, but also objects of destruction. This is dramatically seen in Revelation with the trumpets and the bowls: one warns, the other destroys; yet, it may be the same event -- for one it is a warning/trumpet, for another it is the end/bowl. Thus, the ultimate goal of these divinely placed obstacles is to turn the people back to the path that leads to life. In this way, "the stumbling block may become a stepping stone to higher things" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 12, p. 49-50]. "When a righteous man turned from righteousness and did evil, God placed a 'stumbling block' before him. The man had already turned from God's ways and done evil (vs. 20); so this stumbling block was not placed by God deliberately to cause the righteous to fall into sin. Rather, it was an obstacle set into the path of this man to see how he would continue to respond. If he fell, then death came. Some see the stumbling block as equivalent to a death sentence" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 765-766]. God does not cause anyone to commit sin (James 1:13), but He does place obstacles in the path of those who commit themselves to a life of sin in order to try and awaken them to their temporal and eternal plight. Those who are awakened by these repeated stumbles and falls may indeed choose to alter their course; those who continue in the paths of sin will eventually be destroyed. I believe this is probably the truth being proclaimed in this passage; a gracious God is actively attempting to turn people back to the path that leads to life: if they repent, they live ... if they persist, they die. -- Al Maxey
From an Author in California:
Brother Maxey, Thank you for the plug you gave me in Reflections #749 ("The 'Shall' or 'Should' Debate"). Carl Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett were my heroes. You are their successor!!
This brief email made my day, for it comes from a man I deeply respect and admire: J. James Albert, to whom I gave a special "shout out" near the top of the "Readers' Reflections" section of my last issue of Reflections. He is an author whose works I have followed for many years: a true thinker and leader in the Body of Christ. That someone would even mention me in the same breath with such men as Ketcherside and Garrett, both of whom I have admired for years (the latter of whom I actually got to know and with whom I corresponded), is itself an honor. But, to be viewed as their successor in the eyes of another giant of faith is mind-blowing! So, I want to thank you, Jim, for this encouragement and spiritual uplift. I love and appreciate you, my friend! -- Al Maxey
From a Minister in New Zealand:
I have just read your latest article ("The 'Shall' or 'Should' Debate") while sitting at the Mt. Maunganui airport waiting for a brother to fly to Australia. Thank you for this study! It helped me to understand NT Greek better, which is invaluable to me. From a layman's point of view, I have never had a problem with different translations of John 3:16, as I always study the Bible contextually, by cross-reference, and through specific word studies. Nevertheless, this article is certainly very helpful to me! In fact, I highly value your articles; they must be a life-line to a lot of people! Thank you again, and God bless you.
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, I have been a long time reader of your Reflections, so Thank You for that! I am a Church of Christ member here in south Texas, and have been for 40 years. I get some really strange looks when I ask our elders and members if we (i.e., the "Church of Christ" church) are the only "one true church," and if so, then which of its many factions should I attend? Every time I ask this question I get the same response: "Uhh, what do you mean?!" I am including a link (Click Here) to Rick Atchley's "Chairs" illustration, which explains this quite well. Thanks for what you do, Al. You are making a huge difference within our faith heritage, and within other denominations as well.
From an Author in Arizona:
Your essay "The 'Shall' or 'Should' Debate" arrived a few days ago, but I'm only just now getting around to ingesting and digesting its contents. As usual, your "spirit of expression" is quite vivid. I have always appreciated any scribe whose gift is to verbalize his thoughts in an understandable manner, whether in print or otherwise. You "fit the bill." You noted in your article: "The works-centered crowd is quick to suggest that, with respect to one's ultimate salvation, the teaching of John 3:16 is insufficient. Yes, faith is vital, they will say, but it is baptism in water that secures our salvation, not faith alone." Oh, do I ever recall my novice days when I preached this same erroneous message (saved by baptism) from pulpits to street corners. It is a miracle from above that we finally evolved out of that mindset (with the Spirit's assistance and guidance, of course). At best, immersion in water confirms our acceptance of Jesus; it does not finalize it. There's a world of difference between confirming and finalizing. Do I believe in immersion in water? Absolutely! Our Lord and His apostles commanded it. The error surfaces in traditional religion, though, when its adherents distort and twist this act into something other than what our Lord meant it to be. Well, it is great indeed when any of us modifies our mindset when additional light becomes available. Good to read from your pen again, brother!
From a Reader in Arkansas:
Brother Max Lucado's metaphor of John 3:16 (that it is "The Hope Diamond of the Bible") is fantastic and spot on. Your review of Greek verb moods was also very welcome! It has been 45 years since I took Greek, and your review helped bring some of what I once knew quite well back into focus. The rust of time is hard to combat. God bless you, Al.
From a Reader in Washington:
I have been wondering if you have written anything on what the Bible has to say about Christian burial -- that is: cremation or the grave? I have gone back-and-forth on this subject and would appreciate it if you have anything I could read on the matter. Thank you so much!
I shared with this senior saint my following study: "May Christians Be Cremated? In Search of the Biblical Perspective" (Reflections #72). Later, after she and her husband had read this article and discussed it, I received a message from them saying that it had brought "peace of mind." I hope this study will do the same for others who may have the same concerns and questions. -- Al Maxey
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