The second phrase I want to look at is one I picked up from Americans. I think it’s brilliant, but I have found that there are English folk who have a problem getting their heads round. It’s this: I always think I’m right, but I don’t think I’m always right! So let’s take this apart and find the sparkling gems of important biblical principles so succinctly and brilliantly stated by it.
There are two equal and opposite errors into which Christians can fall concerning how they apprehend the truths of scripture. One is to be so un-definite and wishy-washy that it’s difficult to know quite what they believe about anything. Many believers are so ‘shades of grey’ through fear of being thought of as being too black and white, so woolly- and double-minded in their desire to avoid ever being thought of as being overly dogmatic, they end up virtually conviction-less and pretty much useless as far as serving the Lord goes. Evangellyfish with no backbone! In his letter James states that a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways, and this is one of the major reasons why so many Christians are so hopelessly compromised and cowardly in their discipleship and witness to the surrounding culture. Because they are not clear on even the basics of the faith, they just wobble all over the place having little to saying just keeping their heads down and to avoid controversy.
The opposite error, however, is when believers hold understandings and convictions regarding the teaching of scripture which, once embraced, become fixed and unalterable in their thinking. They then deem their doctrinal positions to not even be open for discussion, let alone possible re-examination and re-assessment in the light of increased scriptural awareness and knowledge. And of course there is a spectrum in-between these two extremes which, given that none of us are ever in perfect balance, each of us is somewhere along at any given time. It is, after all, quite possible to have intractable convictions regarding those bits of the Bible we take a liking to and especially agree with, whilst being conviction-less – indeed, probably just completely ignoring – those parts about which we might simply not be bothered. All this is error and imbalance, and we need to be doing everything we can to get it right. So let’s break our phrase down into it’s two constituent parts.
First, I always believe I’m right! Think about it! Why would we believe certain things, thereby acting and behaving in whatever way those beliefs demand, if we didn’t believe those things to be right? Definite biblical conviction is meant to be the very basis upon which we live! Jesus said, “They shall know the truth and the truth shall set them free.” So if I am living on any basis, in any area of my life, that is not a positive embracing of, and obedient response to, clear biblical conviction, then I am not, by definition, being faithful to the Lord and am living in bondage in such regard. If we claim to be disciples then the only thing that should matter to us is being in conscious obedience to scripture. Jesus also said, “If you love me you will obey my commands.”
This is obviously an ongoing process which progresses over time, but once we are saved our whole intent should be to be continually adjusting our thinking, and therefore our lives, in order so as to conform with our growing understanding of what the Bible teaches. Wherever we find ourselves at variance with it, whether in belief or action, then the evidence of discipleship, as opposed to us proving to just be carnal Christians, is that we duly repent. That is, that we change both our thinking and our behaviour accordingly.
There are obviously also going to be those things concerning which, at any one time, we are genuinely unclear on regarding what scripture teaches, the jury, so to speak, still being out, but even then we should still be continually seeking to understand more and more of its teaching in order to adjust ourselves and our lifestyles accordingly. We cannot truly follow the Lord and grow in Him without also growing in clear progressing biblical conviction regarding every area of life.
So yes, of course I always think I’m right. If I didn’t think I was right regarding whatever I believe, such being the basis for how I live, then what business do I have believing whatever it might be in the first place? James also states quite clearly in his letter that if a man knows what is right but doesn’t do it, then that to him is sin. Notwithstanding, as we have already seen, there will always be things we don’t yet understand from scripture (but of course one isn’t then claiming to be right regarding them), we are nevertheless meant to be crystal clear on the basics. Should such not be the case, then we should realise how important it is that we start putting that right as soon as possible.
Secondly, but I don’t believe I’m always right! This is crucial! The safeguard to always believing that we are right is the ongoing realisation that we should only believe anything at all should it be what scripture actually teaches. So we must now introduce another thought, and it is simply this: I don’t know what I’m wrong about! And neither do you! Think about it! If I thought I was wrong about something then I would, presumably, correct it, put it right and therefore not be wrong any more. Should we ever remain knowingly and wilfully wrong about something then that is obviously sinful and without excuse, but even when we truly are being as genuinely honest as we know how, it still remains the case that we are sinners who are naturally prone to deception, and who could therefore be wrong about absolutely anything, at any time, without realising it! And of course the answer to that is what the Bible teaches concerning humility, and about the importance of us being genuinely correctable and willing and open to having others show us where we are wrong. But of the course the important thing then is that any such correction must itself be demonstrably what scripture actually does teach! In order to properly correct someone it must be made absolutely clear to them from God’s Word that they are wrong, otherwise there is no basis to even think they are wrong. The only basis upon which to expect a believer to change their mind concerning honestly held biblical conviction is to demonstrate from scripture that the conviction in question is actually wrong.
This is one of the reasons why being in close and significant fellowship with others is vital, and why it is so important that we never expect anyone to accept anything we say or teach just because we say or teach it. Indeed, we should always encourage others to satisfy themselves whether or not anything that has been stated is consistent with God’s Word. As a Bible teacher I have always insisted that no-one accept anything I teach unless they are satisfied for themselves that it is what the Bible teaches. I would rather believers disagree with me because they have honestly searched out scripture for themselves than agree with me just because I said it, or because I merely sounded convincing when I did. Conversely, however, if someone does disagree with something they hear taught, then it is for them to demonstrate from scripture that one teaching it is wrong, as opposed to merely rejecting something just because they don’t like it, or because it doesn’t fit in with their own pre-conceived ideas or pet doctrines.
I have certainly become accustomed to being thought of as being fay too definite about various biblical issues which many Christians seem to want to remain obscure, and concerning which they consider it offensive to be dogmatic because they don’t want to have to be in obedience regarding them! But whether it’s what I teach in regards to church life, the differing roles of men and women in family and church life or the scandal of divorce and remarriage, I have always made it as clear as I know how that I welcome correction, whether concerning those issues or anything else. My position has always been this: Like anyone and everyone else, I have no idea what I am yet wrong about! Therefore, if anyone thinks they can see where I am wrong about something then please, please, please, feel free to show me! I honestly and truly don’t want to be wrong about anything, yet am nevertheless fully aware that I am wrong about things which I genuinely and honestly think I am right about! But here’s the condition! You must show me what you think I am wrong about from scripture, and you must do so fully aware that it might also turn out that it is you who is wrong concerning the matter, and not me after all! To just say someone is wrong about something without clearly demonstrating your biblical basis and authority for so doing is actually an example of monumental arrogance and presumption. Do you really expect others to accept that what you say is correct merely because you say it? The whole point is that, in regards to what we are here talking about, it doesn’t matter what you think, or what I think, or what anyone else thinks! The only thing that matters is, what saith the scriptures? Am I right or wrong about this, or the other? Are you right or wrong about this, that or the other? The only way to establish anything is such regard is for all concerned to turn to scripture with as honest and as open a mind as we know how!
So yes, I always believe I’m right, but I don’t believe I’m always right! And that should be the deal for every believer. Every Christian should be able to honestly say such of themselves. It simply boils down to this: We must be definite about, and therefore faithful to, our biblical convictions, yet whilst being genuinely humble in our acknowledgement of our, as yet, unrealised and unacknowledged ignorance and error!
As someone who divides his time between the UK and US, I find it both extraordinary and fascinating to see the two nations in such complete governmental chaos at exactly the same time. As America endures the longest government shut-down in its history, the British government suffers the most devastating parliamentary defeat in our nations’ political history. If, like me, political observation is somewhat of a hobby for you, this is all great fun, but it doesn’t change the fact that such events are monumental. As a result a perennial question is now on the lips of ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic even more-so than usual, and it simply this: Why can’t politicians just be honest, open and transparent about what they believe and then behave consistently with said beliefs? Why do they have to so often be so utterly disingenuous and hypocritical?
But the question all this provokes me to ask is somewhat different, and it is this: Why are so many Christians, and especially Christian leaders, so like the politicians I have just referred to? Why can’t we, as the Lord’s people, just be honest, open and transparent about what the Bible teaches, and stop being so dishonest and disingenuous regarding the bits we keep desperately trying to avoid because of the increasing disapproval of the surrounding culture? Why can’t we just surrender to the Lord once and for all and submit to what scripture teaches irrespective of the profound changes we would have to make in our lives?
For over 40 years I have seen again and again and again that many Christians, leaders included, simply ignore what the Bible teaches regarding certain things it simply doesn’t suit them to address. Even regarding such biblically fundamental issues as the sanctity of marriage and family life, and the differing role of gender within it, believers by and large just turn a blind eye to, for instance, the fact that remarriage after divorce, with some very limited exceptions, is adultery, and that God has ordained the husband to be the head of the family, and that leadership in the church is exclusively male. Because Christian leaders know that many in their various congregations would vote with their feet if they taught what the Bible says regarding such things, and especially if biblical church discipline was being properly exercised where disobedience to such prevailed, they therefore either never even refer to such offending passages in the New Testament or, should such issues ever be raised, just summarily dismiss them by repeating the knee-jerk ‘christian’ mantra that we are not to judge, and that grace and forgiveness means we should leave anything offensive or controversial well alone and just accept whatever way things are. The fact that scripture teaches the exact opposite of such thinking is thereby also avoided, and church attenders are spared unwanted biblically-oriented teaching and thinking entering their consciousness. This is what I mean when I say that so many Christians, and especially Christian leaders, behave more like self-serving politicians than they do disciples of Jesus.
Picking and choosing which bits of the Bible’s teaching we approve of and which we don’t, thereby simply ignoring and disobeying the bits we don’t like, is hypocritical, disingenuous and utterly dishonouring to the Lord. Paul the Apostle told the elders of the churches in Ephesus that he had taught them the ‘whole counsel of God’, yet how many church leaders and Bible teachers today could even vaguely claim to be doing that. Indeed, they know only too well that to do so would cost them not only their treasured popularity, but possibly even their salaries. Christians sit listening to sermons from their leaders week-in-and-week-out for decades without ever being taught some of the most important things scripture has to say. As a result their minds are not being continuously renewed and they therefore remain in conformity to the world and its thinking rather than living in holiness and obedience to the Lord. The New Testament refers to such believers as being carnal Christians! Genuine believers, for sure, but believers who are nonetheless utterly retarded in their spiritual growth and development. The New Testament likens such to grown men and women who still need to be breastfed. A sorry situation indeed!
Across the Atlantic Democratic politicians who just five years ago voted for funding for a wall along the Mexican border are now keeping the government in shut-down by declaring that such a wall is fundamentally immoral, and that they must therefore refuse to grant it. Irrespective of your political stance on immigration and border control, whichever way you cut it, they are being completely and utterly hypocritical! Likewise, here in the United Kingdom politicians who just two years ago pledged commitment to honouring a referendum decision to leave the European Union have since done everything they possibly can to sabotage it and are now, having seen their chance, trying to kill it off completely. Like their American counterparts they are simply demonstrating what self-serving hypocrites they actually are! And Christians who stand firm on whatever aspects of scriptural teaching they happen to agree with, yet who avoid and ignore, and therefore disobey, those aspects which don’t suit them are, equally, similarly behaving like self-serving and disingenuous hypocrites.
Remarriage after divorce, with exotically few exceptions, is adultery, and to not bring church discipline to bear upon those planning to illegitimately remarry is to disobey God’s Word. But how many believers and church leaders are exercised in insuring such a standard prevails in churches?
God has given headship of the family to husbands, and commands that wives submit to it. Likewise, in church life leadership is for men, women being barred from eldership or teaching the gathered church. Yet how many Christian leaders and believers at large are standing firm and strong against the increasing rejection of this truth amongst God’s people?
The New Testament also makes clear that we should imitate the practise of the apostles of Jesus regarding such things as how we conduct church life, how evangelism and baptisms should take place, plus numerous other things which most Christians just ignore and take absolutely no notice of.
It is simply a fact that one of the things that characterises modern Christians is that they simply ignore important and significant teachings of the very Bible – the ‘whole counsel of God’ – whilst purporting to be fully following it! Claiming, as all believers do, the authority of scripture, they then proceed to sit in judgement on it, carefully editing out whichever aspects of its teaching they don’t approve of, or which they know would be too costly and too inconvenient to have to obey.
In the Old Testament one of the constant themes of the judges, and later the prophets, was that, “Every man did what was right in their own eyes.” Having, as they did, God’s Law, they nevertheless had a ‘pick and choose’ attitude and approach to it. Through both judges and prophets the Lord called that exactly what it was, rebellion! Yet today the Church of Jesus Christ, and I mean genuine believers, continues to do much the same thing. Unlike Israel at the time of the judges and prophets we are not under the Mosaic Law but under the new covenant of Grace, yet exactly the same principle applies. We seem to think, just like Israel of old, that we have the right to just pick and choose which scriptural teachings we obey and which we don’t. As with God’s people in the Old Testament we are merely doing what’s right in our own eyes! It is, however, the same now as it was then – rebellion!
But hey! Am I being just too tough here? Is it reasonable to expect Christians to change so radically given that the Christian Church has been going against scripture regarding such things for so long? Is it fair to expect believers to implement su h profound and wide-ranging changes? But hang on a moment! Didn’t Jesus talk about His followers denying self, picking up their crosses and following Him? Didn’t He teach that we would be hated and treated badly by others precisely because our lives are so different, and therefore condemning, of the culture around us? Didn’t Paul command us to be transformed from living a worldly life to living a godly life in Christ Jesus in full obedience to Him and His Word? Doesn’t the New Testament demand that we be willing to forsake everything in order to follow the Lord?
The question for Christians who are actually disciples as well is never whether something is too hard, or too tough, or too costly! The question for them is only ever, “What saith the scriptures? How does Jesus want us to live? What does He want me to be like in every aspect of my life?”
I leave you with a principle I have sought to live by, however failingly and poorly, since the Lord brought me into His kingdom. It is simply this: If I am not standing on God’s Word and living in definite and clear obedience to it at those specific and precise points where others around me, Christians included, have rejected what it teaches, then I am not actually standing on His Word at all!
It is, of course, irrelevant to us as believers that there are politicians who are hypocrites! Of course there are! No surprises there! It should, however, be of the absolutely greatest concern to us to truly test whether or not we, as those who claim to be disciples of the Lord Jesus, and who therefore claim to be committed to be living under the authority of the teaching of scripture, are any different to them!
The final thing we must consider regarding biblical evangelism is that in the New Testament the apostles and the early church taught and practised that baptism was part of the actual conversion process. Throughout the New Testament evangelism consisted simply of the declaration to unbelievers that they should repent of their sins, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptised. That, and that alone, is the biblical gospel. And if you read the Acts of the Apostles you will find that, entirely consistent with that assertion, converts were baptised immediately upon profession of faith in the Lord.
Fundamentally, for two thousand years, the Christian Church has gotten baptism completely wrong, and two errors have dominated regarding it since the emergence of the false teachings of the Early Church Fathers. The first error is when baptism occurs when it shouldn’t (infant baptism), and secondly, when it doesn’t occur when it should; that is, when it is delayed after conversion for the purpose of any kind of baptismal preparation.
We must be clear that, if we go by scripture as opposed to unbiblical Christian tradition, baptism has nothing whatsoever to do with such things as whether your parents are existing church members and themselves baptised, or with joining a church, or with the ministrations of priests or church pastors, or with special church ‘services’ to inaugurate new converts into the Christian life. Absolutely not! None of those things have anything whatsoever to do with baptism! In the New Testament, whether someone was saved publicly in a crowd, or privately with hardly anyone else present, converts were baptised immediately upon profession of their repentance and faith and Jesus. No special meetings were required, and there was certainly no need for church leaders to be present for the purpose of presiding over proceedings and performing the baptism. Biblically, baptism was simply understood to be part of the conversion process. If you were with someone who had just believed in Jesus and gotten saved, then you baptised them as soon as possible – pure and simple!
I’m not suggesting that if someone believes on the Lord but doesn’t get baptised as part of that process they aren’t saved. Of course not! But I am saying that for two thousand years, as with evangelism in general – and many other things pertaining to our discipleship and church life – the Christian Church has followed the false teachings of mere men as opposed obeying the teaching of the New Testament. Or, to put it another way, whether it be evangelism, baptism, church life, or a myriad other things, the Christian Church continues, virtually monolithically, to go against the teaching of scripture.
So let me summarise what we have seen in our consideration of biblical evangelism:
- Nowhere does scripture command that all believers are to engage in proactive evangelism.
- Nowhere does the New Testament instruct us to pray for the salvation of unbelievers.
- There is not one example in the entire New Testament of an evangelistic declaration that includes the proclamation of God’s love to unbelievers.
- The gospel message is the communication of the fact that God’s wrath abides on unbelievers, and that they are commanded to repent, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptised. By so doing they will receive forgiveness of their sins, the free gift of salvation and eternal life.
- The New Testament teaches that baptism is part of the conversion process and that converts should therefore be baptised immediately upon repentance and profession of faith in the Lord. There is no biblical requirement for the presence of church leaders, neither for special church ‘meetings’ during which baptisms are performed. Whether the evangelism had taken place in a public or private setting, the early church baptised converts immediately simply upon their profession of faith.
I do appreciate how unnerving and mind-blowing all this is, but hey, don’t blame me for the fact that the Christian Church is in so much serious error and continues to go against the Bible so much. As an Ephesian 4 pastor-teacher I am mandated by the Lord to teach what scripture says and to refute error, and I must therefore expose the unbiblical and man-originated doctrines and traditions that most other Christian leaders teach, and to which most Christians resultantly adhere. But let me end with this: If you disagree with what I have said and want to counter it in any way, then I think that’s great! Indeed, I positively welcome it! Please feel absolutely free to challenge what I have said and to correct me all you will! (Indeed, feel absolutely free to challenge anything I have ever taught anywhere!) But here’s the deal! You must do so from the text of scripture itself and not on any other basis. You are free to fire all the unscriptural theology, personal opinions and so-called ‘prophetic’ declarations at me you want, but be warned that I will only take notice of arguments and reasonings that are formulated from the text of scripture itself. I have no desire to upset or offend anyone, but when it comes to issues of doctrine, ethics and practise, I only accept as authoritative the teaching of scripture itself.
I suppose that anyone who is in any kind of a minority, and who faces a significant uphill struggle as a result, questions from time to time why they keep doing whatever it is that makes them that minority. And those of us who are in a minority 1) Simply because we are Christians and 2) Because we are also pursuing biblical church life and 3) Because we are not, unlike most other house church advocates, pragmatists and feminists, ask it too.
And I can definitely confirm that being in such a minority amongst not only unbelievers, but most Christians as well, because of a pursuit to live as comprehensively biblically as possible, is most definitely not easy. Moreover, we seem to be an increasingly dying breed too, and many who once followed this path have long since jumped ship. I don’t mean jumped ship from following the Lord, but certainly from what I am describing here. Believe me, pursuing biblical church life, and therefore finding yourself under fire from both traditional churches and house churches, is a tough gig. And it’s a tough gig that most who have taken a shot at appear to be walking away from. So why keep going? Why keep facing such continuing difficulty and discouragement? Is time to conclude that we’ve backed the wrong horse and that we should just vanish quietly into the night?
Well, no! Most certainly not! At least, not for me and my house; and let me tell you why by drawing what I think is a very powerful biblical parallel.
Picture in your mind living in a society, not that different to Western society today, where marriage has mostly become a thing of the past; A society in which the idea of one man and one women covenanting to live exclusively together until death has become unfashionable and is no longer the norm. As with the similar notion that sexual relationships should only be between people of the opposite sex, which is already becoming obsolete now, marriage is considered both irrelevant and culturally passé. A quaint relic of an outdated tradition now mostly rejected; indeed, considered by many to be even somewhat offensive.
One doesn’t actually need much of an imagination in order to envisage this because society is heading more and more in this very direction with every passing day. Just a generation ago the practise of gay marriage would have been unthinkable, yet in western society it is being increasingly accepted as being as normal as marriage between a man and a woman. Against such a developing cultural backdrop it is not difficult to see how marriage might soon become regarded as the main stumbling block to the perceived equality of sexual relationships in general and, as already with other aspects of the traditional family, become a thing of the past.
Now in such a scenario we can be sure, based on the last 50 years of Christianity in the west in relationship to changing cultural norms regarding sex and gender, that within a generation of marriage becoming obsolete amongst unbelievers, and therefore society at large, the Christian Church would largely follow suit. Even genuine born again Christians would end up conforming to the new societal norm of rejecting marriage, just as they have already conformed to the idea that divorce and remarriage other than for adultery is acceptable, that feminism is good and biblical patriarchy bad, and just as an increasing number of Christians now think that gay sex and gay marriage is fine and dandy after all. They will, in short, not conform to scripture, but to the overall consensus of the society in which they find themselves living.
Christians will, I am sure, mostly maintain that you should only have sexual relations with another Christian, and will favour having a few long term sexual partnerships as opposed to overly many short term ones; and will doubtless want to encourage their fellow Christians who are in such relationships to stay together long enough for any children that result to have a bit of stability, probably at least until they get to college age. But of course it still won’t be marriage, and therefore still won’t be family life as depicted in the Bible. But that won’t matter to Christians then, any more than it matters to them now what scripture teaches regarding divorce and remarriage, the headship of a man over his wife and family, or that church leadership should be male.
Picture now, in this scenario, a young man who comes to know the Lord for the first time, and who therefore starts reading the Bible. He has been told by those who are older in the faith that it is God’s infallible and authoritative Word, and so he dives into it so he can learn how the Lord wants him to live and to understand what His will is for his life. As a new believer he is obviously, by very default, culturally liberal and therefore naturally feministic, pro-gay and trans, with little or no concept of traditional marriage or family life given that it’s not the societal norm in which he has been raised, even amongst Christians. And as he does read more and more of this book that he now accepts to be the God’s Word, he makes some pretty astounding – and alarming – discoveries; chief of which is that it teaches that sexual relationships are only acceptable in the context of lifelong marriage – which of course, hardly anyone believes any more, Christians included. And he scratches his head and starts to think and pray it through, and he begins to realise the enormous ramifications of what he has read.
Initially, of course, he just goes with the Christian flow and assumes that things are as they should be, and that marriage can’t be of any great importance. After all, if it was important to the Lord and what He really wanted, then obviously all the Christians he fellowships with be ardent supporters and practitioners of it, and would be married to their sexual partners. But they aren’t, so hey…what the heck??? Even more important, of course, is the fact that if what scripture teaches about marriage did matter, then all the church leaders he knows of would be teaching it and would be married too. Ministers and Pastors do, after all, know best, don’t they? All good Christians know that!
But in his ongoing reading, praying and thinking, this ‘marriage thing’ that he sees is so clearly taught in scripture just wont go away. The only reason he’s reading the Bible in the first place is because he loves the Lord, and because he understands it to be the only way to know what He wants. His desire is to daily follow Jesus, and the only means of knowing what that means in practical terms is this book that, amongst a lot of other things that have never been part of his thinking, teaches that sex outside of marriage is a sin. And sin, because he wants to follow the Lord so much, is the very thing he wants to be delivered. He wants to be obedient. He wants to be faithful to His newly-found Lord and Saviour, and so he feels he has no choice but to start asking some serious questions. And of course the mistake he makes to raise the questions with other Christians. Even more even more mistakenly, he raises them with church leaders. What he then hits up against confuses and baffles him beyond words.
Most of the believers he knows don’t really think that his questions matter much encourage him to just concentrate on growing in the Lord and attending church faithfully, and not to get hung up over questions of sexual ethics that no one else is asking. It’s not an issue, they assure him, so why worry? That whole marriage thing was then, they maintain, but this is now! Not worth the controversy, they say!
But this new conscience he’s got since coming to know the Lord just won’t let him do that, so he pushes a bit harder; and he challenges his fellow believers more directly to explain to him why scripture would teach marriage if it didn’t actually matter. And if that wasn’t an even bigger mistake than the other mistakes he’s already made, he then makes the biggest mistake of all, and he starts to challenge church leaders equally directly about it. Working on the assumption that the logical thing to do is to go to those who are supposed know best, and who claim to be teaching their congregations what the Bible says, he quickly discovers the massive difference between what church Ministers, Pastors and Priests want their congregations to think the Bible teaches about certain things, and what the Bible actually does teach about them. The cat is now well and truly out of the bag, and our hapless hero is in B-I-G trouble!
Most of the leaders he talks to take the almost de facto approach of just trying to palm him off with the argument that whereas marriage is obviously what the New Testament depicts (most of them aren’t daft enough to try and get away with saying that doesn’t teach marriage), and was indeed the way things were done in the early church, it is merely descriptive and not prescriptive. It was just how they did things back then. It was just down to the culture of the time, they assure him, and was what was best in that particular historical and cultural context. Although the Christian Church certainly hung on to the concept and practice of marriage for generations after that, as it also did with patriarchy and male headship, and the idea that gay sex was wrong, Christians have now, they explain, realised the time had come whereby such things were presenting a stumbling block to unbelievers, and had become a hindrance to the important mission of evangelising and spreading the gospel in such a way that unbelievers can receive and buy into.
But these arguments, even though from the men who are supposed to know best, just don’t hold water for him, and he is becoming more and more aware of the massive divide between what the Bible quite obviously teaches, and how the Christians of his day were actually living. It is as clear as day to him that that scripture doesn’t in any way allow for such things as marriage and sexual ethics, and numerous other things he keeps hitting up against as well, to be merely matters of preference. Quite the contrary, in fact! It is entirely obvious to him that, as opposed to being matters of preference – mere description as opposed to prescription, as he is repeatedly told – scripture actually makes abundantly clear that such things are matters of unequivocal command. Christians, he concludes, may well assume that such things are matters of mere preference, but it is obvious to him that wherever that assumption originated from, it was never anything to do with scripture itself. The argument, so wearyingly deployed against him, that such things in scripture are merely descriptive and not prescriptive is, he concludes, not only irrational and nonsensical, but simply the way in which Christians in general, and church leaders in particular, justify going against anything in God’s Word that doesn’t suit them.
So he comes to a decision; and it is indeed a bold one! Outside of sharing with others what they are missing in scripture, there is nothing he can yet do in practical terms to put into actual practise what is lacking amongst he fellow believers. He is, after all, a single man, and when something requires the participation of another, and marriage, of course, does, then there is little he can at that moment do. But the unequivocal commitment to biblical practise can nevertheless be made, and he decides that, when he does eventually meet someone with whom he wants to mate, and who desires the same with him, he will absolutely insist on following certain biblical criteria, even at the risk of ending up having to remain celibate his whole life.. The list is simple, but profound:
1) She must be female.
2) She must be a Christian.
3) She must believe in marriage as scripture teaches.
4) They will then marry for life, only after which will they have sexual relations.
His course is now set and he knows exactly what the Lord would have him do, regardless of personal cost: to seek to teach and persuade as many other believers as he can that scripture commands lifelong marriage, that sex outside of marriage is a sin, and that any Christians living together should therefore either end any sexual relationship such as they are in, or get married immediately. And of course now the game-changer has happened. Thus far he’s been regarded as merely weird, though a still a definite nuisance, but nothing overly dreadful beyond that. A young man, so everyone is still praying, who might yet grow out of his strange obsession and become more spiritually balanced.
But now it is clear to his fellow believers, and especially church leaders, that he has now become a full-blown troublemaker and a thoroughly bad and divisive influence. By declaring so publicly that scripture teaches marriage he is implying that everyone else is wrong, and of course not just Christians in general, but church leaders too. He is judging them, and must therefore be a divisive and arrogant troublemaker. And our resolute hero can only scratch his head in wonderment at the logic of these (presumably) otherwise sensible brothers, sisters and church leaders who are maintaining that he, by definition, is doing wrong by saying that they are wrong, but who also think that it’s fine and dandy for them to say that he is wrong. He concludes, however, that such irrationality doesn’t merit further consideration!
All is not lost though! He’s pretty much blacklisted now, and Christian leaders are increasingly warning anyone and everyone against him; and he realises more and more that his walk with the Lord is probably going to be a lonely one. He also discovers that the main weapon so relentlessly employed against him by those who don’t want him to be heard on these things is going to be continuous and unending slander and innuendo. No smear, it would appear, or even intentional lie, is off the table when it comes to church leaders silencing anyone teaching that sex outside of marriage is sin, thereby daring to challenge the consensus of Christian mainstream that it is their job, and a pretty well paid one too, to uphold and maintain. His situation is difficult, to say the least, but then the miracle happens. The Lord brings along a Christian girl who also wants to be faithful to the Lord, and who therefore also wants to do what His Word teaches. So quite brazenly and unapologetically they do the unthinkable…they get married!!!
The outcry from other believers is of varying degrees. Most just refuse to accept that what they have done can be considered a proper relationship, let alone a relationship that all sexually active Christians should embrace, whilst others, and especially Christian Ministers, Pastors and Priests, are somewhat more strident in their denunciations. Does this divisive young troublemaker, and now his poor deceived wife, really have the temerity, the sheer gall and arrogance, to refer to this ‘marriage’ of theirs as a biblical relationship? Are they saying, retorts Christian mainstream, that the rest of us aren’t biblical? Are they suggesting that our sexual relationships, just because they are outside of marriage, are unscriptural? Have they not seen how much God blesses these so-called unbiblical relationships? Do they not accept how clearly the Holy Spirit has led the Christian church into such a consensus? Are they so arrogant and self-important so as to claim that they done are right and everyone else wrong? The fat is well and truly in the fire, and our young man and his beloved new wife hunker down for a very long, hard and lonely haul.
But as time goes by, slowly but surely, here and there, both at home and in other nations, a trickle of other believers get to hear this controversial teaching, and realise that marriage is indeed what scripture commands after all. Many of those who do A lot of those do acknowledge that it is indeed what scripture does teach nevertheless disregard it saying it would be too problematic, couldn’t actually work, and would disrupt their Christian lives too much; but some actually go for it and do the unthinkable themselves. And word slowly gets out that more and more Christians are getting married, and are being vocal about the fact that their fellow believers are wrong to just disregard something as absolutely fundamental to the Christian life as man/woman/parental relationships. And Christian mainstream, and especially church leaders, get more and more threatened, offended and angry, and do more and more to try and stamp it out once and for all.
Over the years that follow, however, those Christians who have gotten married start to become increasingly aware of why most other Christians haven’t. There is much joy and happiness, to be sure, but problems arise between themselves and their spouses that, precisely because they are married to each other for life, they can’t just walk away from as they would have done before. “Yep, that’s definitely why most Christians don’t like marriage!” they conclude! “Man, we see it all so clearly now! This marriage lark is tough at times, but it means that, by definition, there’s no getting out of it once you’ve done it. If you’re not married you can just go and find someone else when you hit problems, but not when you’re married! God must be wanting to actually do something in us that can only happen because we don’t do that, and because we can’t just walk away and escape anything we don’t like, or because we get increasingly ticked off at each other. Yeah, we definitely get it! This must be that sanctification process that Christians talk about so much but avoid like the plague!” But tough though it is, and all the more so because of the constant opposition and slander from other Christians, everything seems to be nonetheless as it should be. Not only are they married, they are delighted to be so.
But as yet more years pass something starts to happen that is extremely disappointing. Not only are fewer and fewer Christians getting married, a significant number of those who have are divorcing. Marriages are falling apart, and the word is that it’s because people are finding it just too hard being the same relationship for life. The only answer, they feel, is to go back to Christian mainstream and escape this limitation of being trapped in marriage relationships that curb their freedom so much, and which aren’t making them happy. There was so much about how it was before, they recall, that was thrilling and exciting. You know, the buzz of a fresh sexual relationship with somebody new after the last one has worn thin. You don’t get that if you’re husband and wife, and many of the Christians who have gotten married are now saying that they are just missing how it was before too much.
And having gone from being a ridiculously small minority to being a very small minority, our faithful band of protagonists return to being the ridiculously small minority they originally were as more and more of their fellow believers who married divorce, their marriages having failed. Not only that, but the mainstream churches are veritably cock-a-hoop, welcoming back these believers with failed marriages behind them virtually as returning heroes. In the face of such discouragement, disappointment and pain, the question increasingly arises for those who remain doggedly sticking with their biblical convictions regarding marriage: Why not just give up? Marriage obviously doesn’t work for most Christians because they think it’s too hard and just can’t hack it! And we find it hard too, sometimes, and certainly harder than the easy going lack of commitment and sacrifice in mainstream practise! Are we just flogging a dead horse?
But no sooner is the question is asked than it is also answered: If every Christian marriage in the world fails, declares our (now much older) protagonist and his warrior wife, should even our marriage fail, nothing changes the fact that it is what God’s Word teaches and therefore what He wants. If not one Christian couple in the whole wide world were married, and if every believer walking the face of the earth remained deceived concerning it, it wouldn’t change the simple fact that scripture teaches marriage, and that sexual relationships outside of it are wrong. But as it happens, he adds, we actually love each other and would never stop being husband and wife for any reason anyhow.
You can probably see where I’m going with this: What scripture teaches regarding church life is commanded as equally, and as clearly, as is marriage. It is therefore no more a matter of personal preference than is the Lord’s commands regarding family life, irrespective of the fact that 99.99% of Christians seem to unquestioningly think that it is. I am not putting adherence to biblical commands concerning church life in the same ‘first order’ moral category as that of sexual sin, of course not, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t vitally important or that it doesn’t matter. Scripture is our final authority in all things, and any disobedience is an affront to the Lord and His authority, whether it be concerning His instructions regarding family life or church life.
I am sad beyond words how few biblical churches there appear to be, and it is nothing short of tragic to me that a significant proportion of those I have known about over the years failed and are no longer in existence. There will obviously be things going on of which I am not aware, and that thought thrills me, but the available evidence is that biblically based churches remain exotically rare. But am I discouraged to the point that I am ready to give up? Of course not! And neither should anyone else be! The parallel just drawn with marriage, albeit it hypothetical, is nevertheless a profound one because church is, after all, just family writ large. The church is, according to scripture, the very Bride of Christ. And in the same way that marriage is God’s will, whether anyone believes in it or practises it or not, so too is biblical church life.
I am personally blessed on both counts. I have a wonderful marriage and am part of a biblical church that, although somewhat numerically smaller than when we started off 35 years ago, is still going strong. Whether it, or any other biblical church, ultimately survives, isn’t the point! The point is that we have done, and are doing, what scripture teaches regarding something the vast majority of Christians, however unwittingly, are in disobedience to the lord concerning. Am I disappointed that so few believers are conforming to scripture, and therefore to the Lord’s will on this? Of course! But most of the Old Testament prophets were in a somewhat similar circumstance regarding the deficiencies and disobedience of God’s people they were standing against, and there is nothing biblically unusual about being a lone voice crying in the wilderness.
So why don’t we just give up? Why don’t those of us who are so doggedly pursuing biblical church life, yet finding it so dishearteningly and discouragingly hard, stop flogging such a seemingly dead horse and just admit defeat! Well, the answer to that is because we are disciples of Jesus and therefore committed to doing everything we can in order to live according to His will as revealed in the pages of scripture. However badly I may be doing in my discipleship, and believe me, I do indeed think that I am doing rather badly, I nevertheless want to be obedient to Him. And the only way I can do that is by first ascertaining what He actually wants, and the only way I can do that is by living as comprehensively as I can according to His written Word. It really is very, very simple!
So is it time to just quit this whole biblical church thing and be done with it? My answer is simple: What saith the scriptures?
Throughout the last two thousand years, and all around the world today, Christians come together in churches of an almost endless variety. Whatever shape or size of church you prefer, you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be something out there somewhere that fits the bill. Moreover, it seems pretty clear as well that the vast majority of Christians in this myriad of completely differing churches are quite happy to endorse the believers in pretty much all the others.
Across the world Christians in churches that are, for example, led by priests, happily endorse other churches which are not led by priests. And, of course, vice versa! How many Christians in (let’s say) Baptists churches are going to condemn their brothers and sisters for being in Episcopalian ones? I would imagine very few! Yes, by and large Christians don’t tend to fall out with each other over what kind of churches they attend. And, of course, quite right too!
But I have discovered something in all this which is, I think, rather strange, because there does appear to be an exception to this rule, and one that generates a goodly amount of controversy too. You see, whereas most Christians in churches that, for instance, baptise babies, are happy for other Christians to be part of churches which don’t, and vice versa; and whereas most Christians in churches whose worship is somewhat akin to a pop concert are content for other believers to be part of churches which would positively reject anything other than a pipe organ or piano, and vice versa, there nevertheless does seem to be one way of doing church of which the vast majority of Christians, and especially church leaders, are deeply suspicious, and on which most seem to positively frown.
I have discovered, over a period of four plus decades, that pretty much any which way of doing church is, broadly speaking, acceptable to the vast majority of Christians except that of simply replicating what churches were like as described in the pages of the New Testament. Christians are free, it would appear, to do church pretty much however they choose with the exception of just copying how the apostles of Jesus set churches up in the first century.
Worship, it seems, can be completely liturgical, or not liturgical at all. It can be raucous and charismatic or ecclesiastically sombre. It can be happy-clappy or quiet and reverent. But what it can’t be, it would appear, is open and participatory, with all present free to take part as the Lord leads as taught by Paul the Apostle! The Lord’s Supper can be pretty much any kind of ritual with bread and wine that you care to think of, whether administered through the medium of priestcraft or non-ordained laymen, light and airy in tone or more formally ecclesiastical; but what it apparently can’t be is having a loaf of bread and cup of wine as part of an actual meal as was the case in the New Testament churches!
Further, church leadership can take the form of Archbishops, Archdeacons, Vicars and general priesthood or, alternatively, it can be the other end of the spectrum and comprise non-priestly – yet still ordained – Ministers and Pastors and the like. But what it apparently can’t be is plural elders raised up in, and recognised by, the church of which these men were already a part even though this is what Bible scholars unanimously accept was how the early church functioned in such regard! And we note finally that it is quite normative for Christians to gather in Cathedrals, Basilicas, Church Sanctuaries, Chapels, rented building and village halls etc, but should a church simply meet in the homes of those who comprise it, as Bible scholars unanimously confirm that the New Testament churches did, then not only are such gatherings of believers not even recognised as being churches, they are positively guaranteed to invoke the very greatest of suspicion!
This is amazing, is it not? Pretty much any which way of doing church you can think of is acceptable in the eyes of most Christians except, that is, the way the New Testament describes that churches were actually like! When it comes to what form church life ought to take the consensus of Bible believing Christians throughout church history has been that pretty much the only way not to do church is the way the Bible actually teaches.
I think that is something we should think about very seriously indeed!
Isn’t life strange?
We can, broadly speaking, divide the concerns of the writers of the New Testament into three areas: theology (propositional doctrinal truth), morality and ethics (personal holiness) and actual practise regarding such things as church life and church setup, baptism, and how the early church went about evangelism etc. However, although few genuinely Bible believing Christians would question whether or not the first two categories are matters of command; that is, positively prescribed, the majority view since the New Testament was completed has been that the third category is merely descriptive and therefore not binding. Whereas theology and personal holiness are accepted as being biblically mandated, with the clear understanding that the apostles of Jesus expected full obedience to their teaching regarding such, how Christians put into practise what they also taught regarding church life, baptism, evangelism and the like is, in contrast, said to be entirely negotiable and up for grabs. It is apparently absolutely fine for us to go about such things any which way that happens to best suit us.
Now of course if this is what the New Testament writers actually teach then all is well and entirely as it should be. If it is found to be clear from the inspired text that theological truth is binding (divinity of Jesus, atonement, salvation through faith by grace alone etc etc), and that moral stances such as not stealing, or not being sexually immoral, or positively loving our neighbours and forgiving others are matters of command, but that things such as church practise, baptism and how evangelism was conducted are not mandated, then I would have no complaint. But the simple truth of the matter is that, however much Christians continue to turn a blind eye to it, such things are commanded and mandated in scripture just as is doctrinal theology and personal moral and ethics.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2, precisely in the context of how the believers there were conducting themselves regarding church life (the immediate context being women in the assembly), Paul writes, “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.”
The Greek word here for traditions is paradosis and it simply means the established way of doing things; that is, established practise. And of course, if Paul is praising them for sticking to the way he taught them to conduct themselves regarding church life, and women in the assembly, then what would he say to believers who have changed what he had taught the Corinthians out of all recognition? He certainly wouldn’t say, “Well done for going against what I teach and doing things completely differently!” He would rather say, “What on earth do you think you’re doing?”
Following the above statement are four chapters in which the apostle outlines how the Corinthians were messing up their church gatherings, and what they were to do in order to correct things. As a direct consequence Bible scholars are virtually unanimous in their understanding that Paul had taught the Corinthian church to, for instance, meet in their homes, to have open participatory sharing and worship with all present taking equal part, and that the whole proceedings ought to revolve around the Lord’s Supper, the loaf and cup being part of a communal meal. Paul also makes clear in these chapters that when it comes to church practise, the test of orthodoxy is conformity to this way of doing things. Phrases such as, “We have no other practise!” and, “As in all the churches…” eloquently testify to this simple fact. Then, summing up his argument at the end of these chapters, he writes in Chapter 14:36-38:
“Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.”
Here, as clear as day, and as black and white as one could wish for, in the precise context of describing how a church gathering ought to be conducted, Paul states both explicitly and unequivocally that such things are as much matters of command as are theology and morality. If what Paul writes here is to be taken in any way seriously, and how could it not be, then we are not free to do things differently, be it regarding church practise, baptism or whatever. In the second to fourth centuries the Early Church Fathers went totally against Paul’s teaching, and therefore against the Word of God itself, when they made the changes to church life and baptism to which the vast majority of Christians, however inadvertently, are still adhering.
The argument that in the New Testament such things as church life and baptism are merely described as opposed to prescribed is patently false. 99.9% of Christians will have never even heard the above verses referred to by their leaders, let alone explained or expounded by them. How could they though? Should they attempt to do so, their leaders would then have to explain why they are making a living out of performing a ministry of which the New Testament knows absolutely nothing!