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 A quaint relic of an outdated tradition now mostly rejected; indeed, considered by many to be even somewhat offensive.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!
As both an elder and a Bible teacher I would rather deal with, and be the victim of, the abuse of the freedom biblical church life grants the Lord’s people, than the perpetrator of spiritual retardation and damage amongst them through the exertion of a completely unbiblical hierarchical authority and control.
That the entire edifice of the church life of the vast majority of Bible-believing Christians should be built on a system of leadership and hierarchy that is itself entirely unbiblical beggars belief!
As for me and my house, we will go by scripture!
One of the things I have strongly contended for a great many years is that evangelism is not the function of the church. But because I fully appreciate how easy it is for folk to completely misunderstand this, let me clarify. Evangelism is not the function of churches, and neither is the necessity of doing good works in the world! Evangelism, and doing good works in the world, are the functions of individual believers who comprise churches. Precisely because evangelism solely concerns unbelievers, and because doing good works in the world largely concerns them, such activities, virtually by definition, occur outside of church life! Given that all Christians together comprise the corporate church of Jesus throughout time (Church Universal being the term used by theologians) then it is obviously the case, in that sense, that everything to do with serving the Lord is the function of the Christian Church at large; but what lies at the heart of the confusion here is our age old misunderstanding of what individual churches actually are, what they are supposed to be like and how they are meant to function.
In the New Testament churches were simply little extended families of God’s people, meeting in the homes of those families who comprised each individual and specific assembly. Virtually everything the New Testament teaches concerning them depicts that, just like biological nuclear families, they exist for the purpose of mutual nurture, shared love and support. The raison d’être of biblical church gatherings is therefore that of the edification, the spiritual building up, of those present both in the Lord and in their most holy faith. The purpose of gathering is to enable one another to grow in the Lord, thereby each fully becoming the person He would have each of His children to be. This spiritual growth, leading to each one present becoming progressively and fully who they are meant to be, results is them being equipped for the evangelism and good works awaiting them in the world amongst unbelievers during the week ahead.
It is not, therefore, the function of churches to be evangelising and doing good works in the world. It is rather the function of churches, just like nuclear families, to nurture the members of that family so as to enable each to become fully who they should be when outside of the family. This, for the believer who is growing in the Lord as a result of being part of such a church, issues in them performing the aforementioned functions outside of church life amongst the lost.
It’s so simple; but we miss it because the vast majority of churches are not only set up differently to the New Testament ones…they are set up pretty much the exact opposite! Rather than little extended families of the Lord’s people, they are ‘official’ religious institutions. How on earth, we might ask, did Paul and Peter, and the rest of the Apostles, get things so wrong? Or should we rather be asking: How on earth have we managed to?
Go on! Treat yourself! Be brave enough and just admit the obvious….that they were right and that the Christian Church, since the second and third centuries has, quite simply, been wrong!
Something that is abundantly clear from scripture is that Christians are a minority group. Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) So whichever way you cut it, the majority of people throughout human history have been, and are, unbelievers, with only a few – that is, a small proportion – who are Christians and therefore saved. This means that I am, by very definition, in a minority, as is every other Christian who has ever lived.
But of course it doesn’t stop there. I suppose everyone would rather be in the majority, because that would mean, at the very least, acceptance by most, and, possibly, even actual popularity. I don’t know about you but if the choice were mine then give me acceptance and popularity over rejection any time. But for some of us it doesn’t stop at being in the minority merely because we are Christians. The fact that the Lord’s people are so divided over what scripture teaches, and that so much accepted Christian practise is based on completely unbiblical teaching and tradition, means that there are those of us who find ourselves in another smaller minority, even amongst Christians, because of our biblical conviction.
What we have here is a series of ever-decreasing circles pertaining to acceptance and acceptability amongst Christians, and it works like this: All believers, as we have already noted, are in a minority group simply because they are following the Lord. (I am obviously talking here about genuine Christians, and not those who merely erroneously identify themselves as such because of the nation or culture of their birth.) However, because I am one of those genuine believers who adheres to the teaching of scripture, as opposed to unbiblical tradition, concerning church life, and who is therefore, by very definition, outside of Christian ‘mainstream’ and the virtually monolithic ‘system’ that comprises it, I am therefore in yet another minority even amongst Christians, who are themselves a minority in the first place.
Every which way of ‘doing’ church appears to be acceptable amongst the vast majority of Christians, from High Church Anglicanism/Episcopalianism through Methodism and Baptistic Churches down to such expressions as independent Evangelical Churches and Charismatic/Pentecostal ones. Every which way, in fact, except those of us who simply replicate what churches were like in the New Testament during the time of the Apostles. Understanding a church to simply be a numerically small extended family of the Lord’s people, therefore meeting in houses, having open participatory gatherings and sharing the Lord’s Supper as a full meal, as was the case in Apostolic times is, it would appear, the one big “No-No!’ Pretty much everything by way of church life is accepted, affirmed, respected and embraced by Christians at large…except that! Those of us who simply copy New Testament church practise are, apparently, only doing so because we are weird, sectarian, rebellious, deceived, crazy or just too extreme and unbalanced to be considered acceptable. Already in the minority simply by virtue of being a Christian, I further find myself in an even smaller one amongst believers merely for being stringently biblical regarding church life. But hey, there’s more! Amazingly it doesn’t even stop there!
Although, at least in the West, house church Christians are very definitely in the minority when compared to those who attend institutional/traditional churches, there are nevertheless still enough of them to have their own minorities; and guess what…I find myself in probably the smallest one! What I saying is that endeavouring to be stringently and comprehensively biblical means that being part of a house church, and therefore outside of the ‘system’, is only one part, one aspect of the broader matter of being faithful to God’s Word in general. Most believers who are outside of the ‘system’ are not, sadly, outside of it due to biblical conviction, but rather because they just don’t happen to like what it has to offer. Meeting in homes, whilst biblical in itself, is nevertheless only a part of the biblical pattern, and any kind of unscriptural nonsense and behaviour can be practised in peoples homes, just as it can equally be in the public buildings of mainstream traditional churches. So merely being ‘house church’, and therefore outside of the unbiblical ‘system’, is not, of itself, the point. The point should be that we are being comprehensively and stringently biblical. Therefore, those I gather with in the context of biblical church life embrace scriptural teaching regarding other issues which are generally left well alone and avoided by most other believers, whether part of the ‘system’ or not. Because we adhere to scripture regarding such issues as gender differences, and therefore scriptures teaching concerning husbands being the heads of their families, as well as the resultant necessity of Christian leadership being therefore exclusively for the men-folk, we find ourselves an somewhat unacceptable minority amongst even ‘house church’ believers. Hence the ever-decreasing circles of being in a minority amongst the minority of already a minority. (And of course here in England you would have to add home-schooling to the list as well!)
It boils down to this: If you want to be accepted, loved and praised by the world, then don’t become a Christian. Or, if you do become a Christian, be a luke-warm, carnal and disobedient one. And if you want to be accepted, loved and lauded by other Christians, then remain in the ‘system’ and serve both it, and it’s Masters (pastors/ministers etc), dutifully, carefully and, of course, financially. And if you want to be accepted, loved and honoured by the majority of those who have, for whatever reason, rejected that ‘system’, then you will need to ensure that you are feministic, soft on sin overall, weak on what the Bible teaches regarding divorce and remarriage, and generally wobbly on biblical teaching concerning family life in general. If, however, you put the Lord, and therefore the comprehensive teaching of His Word first, then you will have to learn to find your peace, joy and security in the Lord whilst being rejected not only by the world (which was always to be expected), or even just Christians within the unbiblical church ‘system’, but by the vast majority of ‘house church’ believers too.
The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:12-14)
Unbiblical Christianity has it’s ‘camp’ just as surely as did Israel whilst busily rejecting what the Lord was saying to her; and Jesus, because of His adherence to the truth of Gods Word (He was the very Word Incarnate), was cast outside that ‘camp’ bearing disgrace. And as surely as we will have to bear disgrace in the eyes of unbelievers, so will the truly faithful ones of God’s people have to also bear disgrace in the eyes of those believers who live in compromise to the teaching of scripture regarding those things such as I have mentioned, as opposed to comprehensive obedience concerning them.
I thank the Lord though that, a minority of a minority amongst a minority though they be, there are still many, across the world, who have not, as it were, bowed the knee to Baal, however lonely, as Elijah discovered, it might feel at the time. One of the great themes in scripture regarding the Lord’s people is that of ‘the faithful remnant’, in contrast to the majority who, though nevertheless truly His, are compromisers living in, as the Apostle phrased it, carnality and wordy wisdom!
If what you are after is a quiet life, acceptance, popularity and the smile and praises of mere men and other believers, then you will have to be very careful not to conduct your Christian life overly biblically!
When I came to know the Lord I very quickly knew from Him that the Bible was His written Word to mankind and therefore our absolute and final authority in all matters. This realisation was all the more powerful given that I was converted from a non-Christian background, having never even read it outside of the occasional Religious Education class at school. However, even knowing this I nevertheless hit big problems as I found myself to be in disagreement with what it taught regarding certain things. It was a dilemma I could have most certainly done without, but one that obviously needed to be resolved, and quite definitively too. And the resolution I came to, however reluctantly, was that concerning certain issues I found myself in disagreement with the very Lord God Who had saved me, and that I was therefore, by very definition, as much in the wrong as it is possible for anyone to be. I therefore, whilst still a young Christian, settled once and for all that, quite irrespective of what the issue might be, the Word of God was right and I was wrong, such being all there was to it. This was all the more remarkable, I think, given that, with the benefit of hindsight, I realise myself to have been an as arrogant and know-it-all a young man as had ever encountered the living God.
Imagine my perplexity then at discovering, over more years than I care to imagine, that a frighteningly large proportion of Christians I got to know either didn’t believe the Bible to be their absolute and final authority, or were just evading, getting round and explaining away whatever aspects of it’s teachings they didn’t like. Further, sharing my own settled approach of just accepting that scripture was right and everyone else was wrong got me labelled as being a divisive extremist, and I do mean by those who were genuine evangelical Bible believing Christians. That I initially shared my burden unwisely and with a certain lack of humility I do not doubt – I was just over midway through my teens when I came to know the Lord – but then that really shouldn’t have come as any great surprise to those with whom I tried to fellowship who were, both biologically and in the Lord, older and more mature than I was. After all, had none of them been proud and foolish when they were my age, or was I the only arrogant teenager who had ever lived? (Perhaps they had just forgotten what they were like when they were young!) Further, should not the dramatic conversion of a demonised hippy have been considered a good and exciting thing? Something to be positively thrilled about, in fact! Well, apparently not! At least not, it would appear, when he was asking questions no one wanted to answer, and especially when those questions concerned why the teaching of the Bible didn’t seem to be holding final sway.
Another of these ‘realisations’ I came to as a new Christian, which I obviously now believe to have been revelations from the Holy Spirit, was that one of the most important things believers should be doing was to stand firm on, clearly and especially, and propound and live out the teaching of scripture at precisely the points where the culture of the day was most in disobedience to it. And it was as clear as day to me that one of the areas Christians therefore needed to be the most exercised about was the whole area of sexual morality, the sanctity of marriage and God’s order for family life. (This was during the first half of the 70’s, so imagine how much more important this is now given how much worse things have become.)
It has to be understood though just how significant these revelations were given my background. Converted hippies are not known for their natural proclivity towards sexual purity, and had it been the case that the Bible endorsed free love then no one would have been more delighted than I. But it didn’t! And not only did it not endorse free love, it demanded the almost ridiculously (to my thinking) high standard of complete sexual abstinence outside of marriage. So because I had already settled in my mind that the Lord was right and I was wrong, I therefore, though somewhat reluctantly, accepted it. Likewise, I could see as clear as day in scripture that the sanctity of marriage was both unquestionable and inviolable, divorce – with, I understand, just a couple of rather extreme exceptions – being totally unacceptable. (I do not by this imply that those who have remarried wrongly should be considered pariahs. You can’t, after all, unscramble eggs. But what I do most positively imply is that Christians should be made subject to church discipline should they be planning to divorce and remarry illegitimately.) But I also saw quite specifically in scripture, and this is one of the things over which I have been getting into trouble with Christians ever since, that God’s order for family was that the husband was the head of the wife, wives being therefore commanded to submit to their husbands, with husbands and wives together being in authority over their children who should be raised to be both obedient and respectful.
And that, for a newly converted hippy from a liberal, socialistic, occult-practising non-Christian background, took some swallowing. But it was what the Bible clearly taught, and so I had to simply surrender to it in my thinking. And just to complete the picture here, no one was more against capital punishment than I was; and what did I discover from the scripture? That not only is the Lord in favour of capital punishment, it was His idea in the fist place, it being actually commanded in the case of murderers. In fact, in the early years of being a Christian there wasn’t much I didn’t have to change my mind about as I read the Bible, and there was much I found really, really hard to swallow. But of course I did! I’m a sinner whose thinking had, at that time, been completely wrong and ungodly my entire life.
My early years as a Christian were therefore decidedly tough. Not only did I have to struggle to conform my own life and thinking to scripture, I had to struggle with why other believers not only ignored whole areas of the Bible’s teachings, but also actively disapproved of me for not doing so. Rather than help and encourage me to grow in the Lord, which is what I obviously needed, they continuously put me down to being a divisive troublemaker and distanced themselves from me. I found myself in the ridiculous position of faithfully attending just about every meeting the church had (it was an Anglican church) even though just about everyone else present, and especially the priests, didn’t want me to be there. I knew it was right and biblical to be part of a church, but doing so in the face of being so unwanted by the church I trying to be part of was far from easy, even though I remained convinced it was right for me to continue attending.
But of course as the months passed things just got worse and worse because, as I read the Bible more and more, not only did I understand the whole thing about God’s order for family, I realised that virtually nothing of church life as it was normally experienced was based on scripture and couldn’t, in fact, have been further from it. I saw more and more clearly that a monolithic pattern existed, irrespective of which denomination, or even non-denominational churches, one had in view, that was massively different to what the New Testament taught concerning what churches ought to be like. I saw the contradiction between the New Testament practise of a having numerically small churches meeting informally in houses, without either clergy (or it’s equivalent) or ‘services’, the believers concerned sharing their lives together in a truly open and meaningful way. What I concluded was basically that, biblically speaking, church life was meant to emulate extended family life, and that churches, wherever I looked, and of whatever persuasion they were, were nothing of the kind, being rather mere religious institutional clubs. And of course this explains not only why I am not a feminist, but why I am also an advocate of house churches.
It explains too, though, why, although a house church guy, I further advocate what I call biblical churches, because even though a biblical church (by which I mean a church set up according to the New Testament, thereby replicating what we read in it’s pages) will be a house church, there is more to it than merely that. It is therefore the case that there can be house churches which are unbiblical in other important respects. Indeed, some of the most unbiblical practises and beliefs I have ever encountered have been amongst house church folk, and it underlines the importance of realising the importance of being comprehensively biblical, and not just picking and choosing which parts of scripture one enacts and which one just ignores and goes against.
I therefore, within a couple of years of coming to know the Lord, came to realise how completely at odds much of Christianity was with the teaching of scripture regarding some extremely important matters. Not only did I see Christians caving in left, right and centre to modern culture regarding divorce, feminism and family life in general, I realised that the entire edifice of church life, indeed, it’s very foundations, were other than that which the Bible teaches. I didn’t yet understand from whence all this false teaching concerning church life had come, but I did know more and more that I had to conform to scripture personally as much as possible.
It was also the case that in the first couple of years of me knowing the Lord quite a few folk became Christians as a result. My parents travelled a lot and would be away from home for months at a time, and in the summer of 1973 I had the place to myself. I had a strong conviction from the Lord that He wanted to use the house, but I wasn’t sure as to what for. I therefore got together with the very few number of local Christians who didn’t think I was a nutcase, and we met at the house one night for prayer. We surrendered ourselves to the Lord afresh and prayed that He would do whatever it was He was planning, and that we would be unconditionally available. And what happened was basically that, over the following few weeks, people spontaneously turned up, some not even knowing why they were there, and became Christians. Most came as the result of word of mouth, but there were also some who came who didn’t know any of us involved, and who quite literally had no idea why they came. That is, until they surrendered to the Lord.
Over a couple of months around 40 to 50 people came to know Him in that front room, most being in their late teens and twenties, with some needing demons casting out of them as well. It was a time of joy and amazement beyond words, and what was also so amazing was that although were sharing the Gospel verbally as needed, we were mostly just praying, with those turning up just joining in and spontaneously having a revelation of the Lord and His salvation. Far from us having to work at evangelising these folk, it was rather quite literally the case that we couldn’t stop them coming to the Lord. It was incredible, and I have obviously never forgotten it.
But of course it was also quite exceptional, and the Lord turned the tap off some weeks later as definitely as He had originally turned it on. New people stopped turning up and the conversions ceased. The outpouring of the Spirit, as it had most surely been, was over, and I have never experienced anything like it since. What wasn’t over, however, was the task of looking after and nurturing these folk who were new converts, and to that task I turned my attention, having really no clue as to how to proceed. We met often for prayer and I would do Bible studies too, this being how I discovered that I could teach in a way that people told me was helpful to them. I also found that I could help people with their personal problems, and sort of just knew the best advice to give. Again, people told me over and over that this was a help to them, and I found that the Holy Spirit would lead me clearly in these, and other, regards.
My biggest mistake, however – though made for all the right reasons – was to try and integrate these folk into the church I was attending so they could be part of it as well. We started meeting together on Friday nights in a hall for worship, sharing together and doing Bible study (I knew the church wouldn’t provide such for them) but thought that an influx of new converts might change people’s attitudes in the church and bless them. I couldn’t, however, have been more wrong. It was a complete waste of time and resulted in us being considered, no doubt as a result of people having been freed from evil spirits (as I had been when I became a Christian), to be occultists. Some in the church managed to be a bit more gracious and even tried to help here and there, but with the leadership so set against us they never really had a chance. So even though I continued to attend the church myself I gave up on further attempts at integration, and continued to meet with the new converts completely outside of it.
Basically, though I didn’t quite see it in these terms at the time, a new church had come into being that was looking to myself, and one or two others, for leadership, though I was the only one able to publicly teach. Thus I discovered my calling, it being proven and confirmed to me through others saying it had been proven and confirmed to them also. That gathering of those young saints continued for another three years, even though I was gone from the area after just one, and it remains to this day the proving ground of the calling that has become my very life ever since. As a direct result the Lord showed me that scripture, and not the Christian Church, must be the authority upon which I act, and that the future lay not in trying to change something which is ultimately unchangeable, but in bringing onto being something quite new – though like any return to scripture, something actually two thousand years old – that is, biblical family and church life. It was basically the realisation that the burden the Lord was placing on me was to teach the whole counsel of God, as opposed to just some of it, but specifically emphasising and practising precisely those aspects that believers were ignoring and trying to avoid.
I am therefore not only somewhat obsessed with the notion of being biblical in every possible way, such being the only way to gauge our obedience to the Lord, I am perfectly happy to be so. It doesn’t, of course, mean I always get it right, and neither do I for one moment think I am myself comprehensively biblical in every regard. Of course not! No one has a monopoly on biblical truth, and least of all me! But it is nonetheless my deliberate intention to aim for such, irrespective of with whom I end up in trouble as a result, or how unpopular it makes me. In the late seventies I had a good friendship with a guy who was both a Baptist Minister and the eventual President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. Though traditional church leaders have obviously never much cared for me, there have been some notable, delightful and greatly appreciated exceptions, and Peter was one of them. He never became convinced of what he would regard as my more radical biblical positions, but he respected me as a young man of God equally as much as I respected him as an older one. There were two occasions when he asked me direct questions to which he wanted an honest answer. The first was when he asked me what I thought my calling was. My reply was simple: to teach the whole counsel of God, but with special emphasis on the parts no one else seemed to be teaching. The second question was asked, if memory serves me correctly, whist he was President of the Union, and it was what I thought the Baptist Union of Great Britain needed to do in order to become biblical. I replied that it should dissolve itself and cease to exist, sell all its buildings and assets and give the money to the poor and bona fide biblically based ministries, and to advise all its affiliated Baptist Churches to do likewise, and for those who attend them to stop being Baptists and just form themselves into a gazillion little biblically based churches meeting in each others homes. He obviously didn’t agree, but he did smile when I said it. But far from being the condescending smile of a big leader pitying a mere un-ordained layman for his sad delusion (he was far too much of a godly and humble man to be so obnoxious) it was a smile of respectful recognition that it was what I truly believe from scripture, and to which I was living accordingly. (Though I have never made much reference to it, I was once head hunted by the Baptist Union to be a Pastor. However, even though both the public profile and money would have been substantial, I nevertheless declined the offer because my conscience would not allow me to so blatantly depart from what I knew to be the teaching of scripture.)
Without a doubt, if there is one thing that four decades of fulfilling my calling has taught me it is that the closer you stick to scripture in teaching and practise the more you will become a target for those Christians who are convicted by the Holy Spirit as a result. The very last thing that believers who aren’t living according to scripture want is to be bothered by those who are, and there is little they won’t do in order to try and silence them. Whether concerning church life, God’s order for family or anything else, whenever there is a choice to be made between going by the Bible or what other people think of you, then it is obedience to scripture that should win out every time. Why? Because obedience to scripture is obedience to the Lord Himself!
I have therefore come under fire many times from Christians over the years, and from church leaders in particular, regarding such issues as church life, Christian leadership, the sanctity of marriage, God ‘s order for family and the necessity of comprehensive obedience to scripture. And what these folks criticism of me actually boils down to, once you get past all the smoke screens, misrepresentations, slander and character assassination, is that they consider me to be far too biblical in my thinking and that I don’t make sufficient concessions to the so-called ‘realities’ of modern life and culture. It is basically that I make the text of scripture, and not pragmatic considerations, the final authority. Or to put it another way, I insist that Christians go by scripture even when the consequences of doing so are unthinkable to them.
The biblical definition of the sin of license is the failure to require from each other as much as scripture does, and the biblical definition of the (equal and opposite) error of legalism is to require of each other more than scripture does. The problem one is therefore up against here is licentiousness, but of course those who are licentious in their thinking define legalism not as the Bible does, that is, requiring more than scripture does, but rather as merely requiring of each other everything that scripture does. Their favourite verse is 2 Corinthians 3v6 where Paul teaches a distinction between the letter and the Spirit, saying that the letter kills whilst the Spirit gives life. The context, however, is a direct comparison between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant pertaining to salvation, but those who teach license, in whatever form, say it rather means there are times when we can ignore certain aspects of scripture should the Holy Spirit lead otherwise.
But of course this is precisely the core deception that so many Christians are under today, the idea that the Holy Spirit sometimes leads contrary to the Bible. If, however, such is the case, then there is ultimately nothing anyone could say is biblically wrong, because on what basis could anyone be challenged should they be claiming to be led by the Holy Spirit? After all, if the Holy Spirit is leading you then you must be right, and anyone who challenges you must be wrong! But if such is the case, then on what basis can any Christian identify anything as being a deception? Well, only by conformity to scripture – and so we come around full circle. Licentious Christians obviously accept that Satan can deceive them, and accept too that scripture is the key to our safety, but the problem is that they consider it to be up to them to decide, purely subjectively, which bits of scripture are binding and which bits aren’t, thus providing them with no protection at all. Whether it’s women being ‘led by the Spirit’ into church leadership, though scripture forbids such, or people being ‘led by the Spirit’ to divorce and remarry in circumstances which scripture teaches are invalid, there is no protection to be had against such deceptions because these believers precisely discount the scriptures that pertain to these things, claiming that the Holy Spirit is leading them otherwise
It is therefore understandable that various segments of the Christian spectrum would find what I teach unpalatable. Whether it be the Evangelical Feminists, the libertarian pragmatists who downgrade the Bible’s teachings, or those who defend the unbiblical church structures, traditions and practices of mainstream Christianity, how could they be anything other than uncomfortable with someone who challenges these things on the pure basis of the teaching of scripture. Further, due to the fact that I am unapologetically baptised with the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues and believe in and minister the gifts of the Spirit, I am somewhat frowned on too by those who teach that such was only for the New Testament era. Yet ironically, because I also deplore the truckload of unbiblical false teachings, practises and so-called ‘ministries’ that abound concerning the gifts of the Holy Spirit, I am also a thorn in the side of charismatic and Pentecostal type Christians. Both the so-called ‘charismatic movement’ and ‘Pentecostalism’ in general is comprised of far more error than it is biblical truth, and I have always seen it as a priority to help believers embrace the Spirit-filled life, and to experience of the spiritual gifts biblically without all the nonsense. So hey, for these, and other, reasons they call me Mister Biblical…but I don’t think they mean it as a compliment!
In more recent years, however, I have been targeted regarding my insistence of being fully biblical in all matters by some who not only claim adhere to the same high view of scripture that I do, but who would also broadly agree with my understanding of biblical church life in general. Indeed, an article appeared and circulated some time ago from precisely these quarters entitled, ‘When Biblical is Bad’, and everyone who knew both myself and the author knew also that, even though my name didn’t actually appear, it was nonetheless written with me in mind.
Now if I taught that we must be biblical in all things and that I alone know what that is, then such condemnation would obviously be fully in order. But of course, not only have I never taught any such thing, the author of the article in question knows full well that I haven’t, and that I have actually always laid great emphasis in my teaching on the fact that no one should accept anything I teach passively, or anything anyone else teaches either, but must test everything for themselves, and to their own satisfaction, against scripture. Indeed, one of the definitions I used of my Christian life is that it is the ongoing process of discovering what I am wrong about, and anyone who has any firsthand knowledge of me at all will readily confirm such as being the case.
So given that my unstinting emphasis is that we should be biblical in all things, and that scripture alone is our final authority, and that neither I nor anyone else has a monopoly on that truth, why on earth should anyone who also believes that scripture is the final authority be accusing me of being wrong for teaching such an emphasis? After all, my mantra is, ‘The Bible, the Whole Bible and Nothing But the Bible!’ so why on earth would any conservative evangelical Bible-believing Christian have a problem with that? Well, the answer is, I think, that there are those who say they believe that the Bible is the final authority, but who actually, without even fully realising it, have other ‘authorities’ that conflict with it, but which are only brought out into the light and exposed when someone dares to suggest that they are actually there.
We have to realise that when we say that the Word of God is our final authority the statement only makes full sense when we also identify whatever things might lay claim to the same status. To say, for instance, that the Bible, and not the Pope, is our final authority is something to which every Protestant believer will give a hearty amen; but if one teaches, as I have done for many years, that systematic theology and theological systems can become to Protestants what Popery is to Catholics, then suddenly the atmosphere changes. To say that scripture is the final authority is a perfectly acceptable statement to many Christians who will then get defensive beyond words at any suggestion that their theological systems might just be more authoritative in their eyes than scripture itself, or that they stand in danger of testing scripture by their theological system as opposed to the other way round. In other words, reading the Bible through the pre-suppositional grid of a theological system, as opposed to testing any theological system such as one adheres to against the touchstone of scripture, is actually a sure-fire way for the devil to replace the bondage of the Catholicism that the Reformation delivered us from with a less obvious, but equally damaging, deception. To replace the authority of the church with the authority of theological systems, creeds or statements of faith is to merely exchange deceptions and to precisely undo a big part of what the Lord did through the period of history we refer to as the Reformation.
Christians who understand the importance and function of scripture and its authority in all matters are rightly saddened at Christians who don’t understand this, and who subsequently end up just going by whatever their preferred ‘teacher’ or ‘prophet’ says, and woe betide anyone who gainsays them. Yet the truth of the matter is that many Christians who do understand the authority of scripture make exactly the same mistake, but just with teachers who are long dead. Whether it be Augustine and the Early Church Fathers, or a Luther or Calvin, one is almost made to feel that to question the teachings of such men, let alone point out their many serious doctrinal errors in order that we might learn from them, is like questioning scripture itself, and to be made to feel one is being, almost by definition, pretentious and arrogant. How dare, it would seem, we presume to question them?
I have even heard it taught by some who say they believe in the final authority of scripture that we can only properly understand it as we submit to the consensus of church history. So I have to ask: what is the difference between the authority of church tradition as taught by the Catholic Church and the notion of the authority of the consensus of church history when embraced by Protestants? Answer: not a lot! And of course one has to also immediately ask; which version of the consensus of church history are you meaning? Is it the Catholic one or the Calvinist one? Or do you mean, maybe, the Arminian one, or perhaps even the Anabaptist one? The idea is irrational in the extreme, just as is Catholicism’s doctrine of the authority of the tradition of the Church, and it ultimately just boils down the ‘experts’ telling the ‘non-experts’ what to believe and what not to believe. Result: the authority of the Bible is replaced with the authority of ‘experts’ telling you what it teaches.
And so I think I understand why I am in trouble even with these folk. That there is much to be learned from ‘great’ teachers and figures of the past, and from church history itself, is not in dispute. Of course not! What is in dispute though is any idea of such having authority. They don’t! I say again, that there is much to be learned from all this is not in dispute, but it must be only to the extent that we test everything by scripture and reject anything that is not consistent with it. Scripture is our final authority because it alone is the infallible revealed Word of God. In contrast, church history can be learned from, but must never be thought to be authoritative. So too with the ‘great’ figures of the past, though it does have to be said there is an enormous problem regarding such in that Christians don’t actually agree who are the goodies, and baddies, actually are. I know godly and highly intelligent and biblically literate believers who think, for example, that Luther and Calvin are the among the most important and godly Christian figures in church history, whilst others, who are equally as godly, intelligent and biblically literate, think them a blot on the Christian landscape. So too with Augustine! Was he the godliest man to have lived since Paul the Apostle, or was he the most dangerous heretic church history has ever produced? Again, you will find godly men and women, equally intelligent and biblically literate, answering that question oppositely. Personally, I think they were all bit of both, but the point to grasp here is that none of this is as straightforward as some would have you believe. I can understand why there are believers who mix up whatever theological system they hold to with the authority of scripture; after all, they believe their system to be the actual and definitive explanation of what the Bible teaches. But then who needs the Bible? If you have a definitive explanation of it, then it is obviously far simpler for me to comprehend that than scripture itself. The ‘experts’ have done my thinking for me, and surely they know best.
But of course there’s yet another problem here because there are multiple such theological systems, and guess what, they all conflict with each other. And if they all conflict with each other, then they can’t all be right, can they? So are they all wrong, or is one actually right? But if so, how would we know which it is? Is it Augustinianism, Calvinism, Arminianism, Dispensationalism, or one of their infinite variations? How do we know what is right or wrong in such regard? Answer: by testing them against scripture! And so we come full circle! Scripture alone is our final authority, and to claim there is authority in anything else is not just an error biblically speaking, it is nonsense. It is sheer folly and nothing less! (Let me put in here as well that there are many believers in various parts of the world who have never even heard of such a thing as a theological system, yet who seem to be doing just fine in the Lord with just their Bibles. Indeed, I would even say that many of them are doing massively better than those who think their theological systems to be so important and who cling to them so insecurely. The basic problem, I have found, with theological systems in general is that they just won’t let what the Bible teaches get in the way of a good doctrine.)
So do we need input from varying sources in order to better understand scripture? Of course we do! We need to benefit from Bible teachers both dead an alive, and from the genuine experts, who know, translate and explain the original Bible languages, and who do the technical Bible history and stuff. Indeed, we thank the Lord for them, every one! But it is ultimately scripture that we go by, testing everything and everyone else by it. Theological systems, for all their shortcomings, can obviously also be useful as teaching aids, each bringing differing but valuable insights into biblical truth. But just as with Bible teachers, ‘experts’ and church history, all must be tested by scripture, and not the other way round. And if you do you will find that those who have been deceived into thinking that there is a definitive theological system of biblical truth – the one they personally adhere to, of course – will think that you adhere to no theological system at all, when the truth is that you are actually a pick-and-mix synthesis of the best of them all. Or to put it another way, every existing theological system is partly right and partly wrong. They are all partly biblical and partly unbiblical. So how can you know? By testing everything against scripture for yourself. Let me summarize:
Scripture is the final authority, not the Early Church Fathers!
Scripture is the final authority, not Augustine of Hippo!
Scripture is the final authority, not church history!
Scripture is the final authority, not the Catholic Church!
Scripture is the final authority, not the Pope!
Scripture is the final authority, not Martin Luther!
Scripture is the final authority, not John Calvin! (Arguably the first Protestant Pope!)
Scripture is the final authority, not Jacob Arminius! (Arminius was a nicer, kindlier, more gracious, more loving and far godlier and Christ-like man than John Calvin ever was! Even his enemies testified to his tolerance, forbearance and respect towards all. In contrast, however, Calvin’s enemies, or at least those he managed to catch, were forced into exile, imprisoned, tortured or executed.)
Scripture is the final authority, not creeds!
Scripture is the final authority, not statements of faith!
Scripture is the final authority, and not anyone or anything else.
And so I rest my case! Irrespective of my critics, whichever theological wing, or lack of it, they may come from, I remain steadfast in my assertion that our final authority in all matters is scripture alone, and not what anyone says concerning it. Or to use what has virtually become my catchphrase, we must live according to the teaching of the Bible, the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible!
Let me sum up thus: the Beatles once sang Chuck Berry’s song, “Rollover Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.” Neither Chuck Berry, nor the Beatles, I think, meant any disrespect to those two great composers, but were simply announcing that something new and different was now coming alongside. In a similar vein I say: Roll over Augustine, and tell John Calvin the news.
Yes, they call me Mister Biblical…but I don’t think they mean it as a compliment!