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!
Political correctness is, if you think about it, just the way in which people who don’t want to be disagreed with shut down debate by insulting anyone with a different viewpoint so as to discredit them. The result is that no-one listens to what those who have been thus discredited are actually saying. I call it intellectual fascism, and it’s what keeps the engine of western cultural liberalism well-oiled and running. And of course Christians and Christian values are often the target for it. And why not? If we are to go by what the Bible says, as opposed to the cultural brainwashing so many believers today seem to have undergone, then it should be obvious to us that this is a good thing. Disciples of Jesus are, I thought, supposed to be unpopular! We are a threat to, and therefore a target of, godless society. So it’s good if we are despised and rejected; as long, of course, that we are being despised and rejected for godliness and not just for being not very nice people. (As I have said before, there are an awful lot of extremely unpleasant Christians around!) Being stigmatised in unpleasant ways is a sign that we are being faithful to the Lord Who is, after all, the One actually being hated. Because of our affiliation with Him and His values we are simply sharing in His sufferings. Rejection and animosity from those around us is the Lord’s vote of confidence in us, and a sure sign that Satan has us in his sights. But nevertheless, as the victims so often of political correctness, Christians are quite understandable never going to endorse it.
But I must caution us here to be careful that we are not being the most dreadful of hypocrites. As Christians we are obviously pretty much agreed on the fact that political correctness is, for the above reasons, a bad, dishonest and completely unjust thing; yet the simple fact of the matter is that Christians had political correctness down to a fine art long before modern liberal western culture even existed, let alone developed it’s own version of it…we just call it something different! Throughout church history, whenever questioning Christians, however biblically legitimate their questioning and challenge might have been, have been perceived to be a threat to either established doctrine, church practise, moral behaviour, or the authority of whatever hierarchy is in place at the time, it has virtually always been the case that the issues raised get buried through the simple tactic of those protecting the status quo smearing and discrediting them. Serious examination of any such issues considered to be a threat is thereby curtailed on the grounds that those raising the issues are discreditable Christians who ought not to be listened to.
Scripture calls this behaviour exactly what it is, false accusation and slander! Many Christians do it all the time and seem to think little of it, but when modern cultural liberalism does it they call it political correctness and disapprove! Think about it! Modern liberal political correctness automatically accuses those who, for instance, believe in the family unit and God’s design for marriage, of being homophobic bigots, whilst any who support controlled immigration are labelled xenophobic racists. And of course anyone who is glad that Donald Trump is the president of the United States and not Hilary Clinton is obviously a neo-Nazi-supporting-Klu-Klux-Klan-sympathising-white-supremacist! You silence your critics by nailing them to the wall with a barrage of extremely unpleasant accusations whether such accusations are founded or not!
The Christian version works like this though: Any believer who questions the mainstream Christian ‘system’, or who challenges the powers that be, irrespective of how biblically based their challenge might be, or how completely unbiblical what they are challenging is, are automatically labelled troublemakers and accused of being deceived, divisive and merely rebelling against authority – the authority of those they are challenging, that is! The Christians who so automatically and regularly commit this slander obviously claim to be ‘guarding the faith’, ‘preserving sound doctrine’ and ‘protecting the Lord’s work’, but of course they are doing no such thing! They are simply protecting themselves and their own positions! It’s just the Christian Church’s version of modern cultural liberalism’s political correctness; that is, a well proven technique of using slander and false accusation in order to keep the status quo intact, and to protect the powers that be from challenge. Those constituting whatever the threat is perceived to be are neutralised with smear and innuendo, being thereby demonised through the agency of the constant repetition of slander and false accusation concerning them. Whether such accusations are founded or not is never addressed, the sheer power of the suggestion of such smears usually being enough to do the job by sticking in people’s minds.
Most Christians deplore the fact that liberal cultural political correctness demonises honest folk who are merely adhering to biblical values, making them out to be malicious bigots and prejudiced oppressors. Yet the monumental hypocrisy of the Christian Church is that many of those same Christians are party to doing exactly the same thing to other Christians whose only crime is to question and challenge, on the clear basis of the Word of God, things in mainstream Christianity and church life which are not in accordance with the teaching of scripture. Christians who quite understandably deplore being themselves demonised by secular culture nevertheless feel free to do exactly the same thing to other Christians whom they perceive to be a threat, thus demonising them. However appalling the slander of the current cultural liberalism’s political correctness against those who adhere to biblical values is, I gotta to tell you that I’ve known Christians to be accused of far worse by fellow Christians simply for teaching from scripture things they didn’t like! Christians who stand firm on, and emphasise, those aspects scripture which most other Christians are rejecting, whether pertaining to church life, family life, or any of a myriad other aspects of biblical teaching will, I guarantee, be the victims of this from their fellow believers. (I’ve been called a few things myself from time to time!) I’m just thankful that Christian leaders today can’t have ‘dissenters’ imprisoned, tortured and put to death any more. What they can still do though, and do without shame, is to simply replace literal bodily assassination with character assassination! Remember, the aim of political correctness is clear and simple: to demonise any who disagree or challenge by labelling them accusatively so others don’t take them seriously or listen to them!
Christians who are secure in the Lord and in their biblical convictions have no desire to sling mud at those who disagree with them. They have no need to slander others, nor to defend themselves when slandered. They are content to simply present their case from scripture – though they will certainly do so with both emphasis and urgency – and then leave it to others to make up their own minds. Whenever you see one Christian slinging mud at another Christian in the hope that at least some of it sticks, it tells you precisely nothing about the one being targeted, but absolutely everything about the one slinging the mud.
The Word of God condemns false witness and slander in no uncertain terms, yet such sins are commonplace in the lives of Christians and virtually completely un-judged by the churches they are part of. Indeed, it so often the leaders of churches who are precisely the guilty ones. The New Testament makes it clear that slander should be met with church discipline, and that we should not fellowship with any believer who is guilty of it should they remain unrepentant. Heed the words of Paul:
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11. Emphasis mine.)
Man, what a thing! Modern western liberalism has the Christian Church to thank for developing such an effective means of suppressing unwelcome truths by simply demonising those who voice them: political correctness!
Why are so many Christians, who by very definition believe in salvation by grace, such ungracious people? I think I might know at least part of the answer! The Christian Church has made the mistake of mostly approaching the Bible, which is a virtually entirely Jewish book, with a Gentile (by which I mean, largely Greek philosophical) mindset. This has led to the attempt to understand biblical truth in a way other than the scriptures themselves ask to be embraced. The resultant error can be put very simply: in Western-influenced Christian thought ‘sound doctrine’ is understood largely in terms of properly believing the theological and doctrinal truths of the Bible, whereas Jewish/biblical thought emphasises the practical outworking of those truths which comes as a consequence. The error of Western/Greek thinking is that it defines ‘sound doctrine’ in terms of what you believe, whereas Jewish/biblical thought, as revealed and developed throughout the Old Testament, defines it instead as how you live because of what you believe. This does not in any way imply that getting our doctrine straight on an intellectual level doesn’t matter, quite the contrary, but it does mean that the historic ‘tick box’ mentality approach to Christian doctrine that has predominated historically is itself completely unscriptural.
The simple truth of the matter is that grace isn’t a doctrine to be believed, it’s an attribute of the heart that causes the one who has received grace from the Lord to be the kindest, friendliest, gentlest, most understanding, helpful and self-sacrificial person anyone could wish to meet. It is Greco-Western thinking, and not scripture, that has led to the Christian Church getting this so wrong. Biblically speaking, to believe a scriptural truth/doctrine (synonymous terms) is not to merely accept it as an intellectual concept, but to rather understand it as being the divinely-inspired truth that sets us free to precisely become it, and to actually embody whatever it is in our lives; for the simple reason that Jesus Himself lives in us, and because biblical truth reveals what He is like and how He might live through us.. How sad that so many Christians believe and proclaim so much biblical truth that their day to day lives completely and utterly deny.
Given the whole of human history throughout which they have been able to familiarise themselves with the contents of the Bible, I’m quite sure that the average evil spirit has a somewhat better understanding of Christian ‘doctrine’ than most Christians do, but so what! And of course the New Testament makes this point rather powerfully: the demons do indeed believe, and tremble! They know and believe God’s Word all too well…and hate it with a vengeance! So much for ticking all the right doctrinal boxes then!
Strange to think that on the basis of the average Christians’ perception of what biblical orthodoxy is, one would have to say that Satan is pretty much as doctrinally ‘sound’ as it gets.
I was recently asked why there are so many denominations. The answer is also my primary definition of church history, and it’s simply this:
The reason there are denominations at all, let alone so many, is because Christians can’t reach agreement on how to best go against what the New Testament teaches concerning church life