In my years of talking to people who are in the midst of leaving the church/leaving the Lord, I’ve found that I hear one justification more than any other. The departing Christian is leaving because of some failing on the part of the members of the congregation. They are hypocritical. They gossip. They are unfriendly. They care more about politics than Jesus. They are unloving.
Admittedly, I’ve become more cynical about these claims than I was 15 years ago. For instance, when somebody tells me, “I’m leaving because nobody reached out to me,” I typically understand them as meaning, “I’m leaving because nobody reached out to me except for those who did.” Frequently, there are inconvenient facts that cast doubt on the narrative.
Let’s suppose, though, for the sake of argument, that these claims are true. The disgruntled Christian has indeed seen brethren be hypocritical, gossipy, unfriendly, politically fixated, and unloving. Certainly, brethren can be all these things.
However, even the most virulent church-hater is unlikely to claim that all Christians are all these things all the time. Experientially, we know that the life of every disciple contains a mixture of good and bad behavior. So too does every congregation. The proportion varies from Christian to Christian and church to church, but both are always present.
When a Christian says, “I am going to overlook the good and focus on the bad,” that is fundamentally ungodly behavior. I mean that quite literally. In His relationship with us, God does exactly the opposite. He is merciful to our iniquities. He remembers our sins no more.
Indeed, this selective, gracious amnesia is the only thing that makes it possible for us to glorify Him. He forgets our sins, but He remembers our good works. Like the chisel of a sculptor, the grace of God removes everything from our lives that He does not desire, leaving only the image that He wishes us to bear. When Christ looks at His ransomed, washed, forgiven church, He sees an assembly that is unspotted, unwrinkled, holy, and without blemish. That is not because we are pure. It is because we are continually renewed and purified.
In our dealings with one another, who are we to remember what God has chosen to forgive and forget? Who are we to glue the chips of marble back onto the statue, to dump the filthy wash water back on the spotless wedding dress? And yet, that’s exactly what every Christian who complains about the conduct of God’s redeemed people is doing.
I will not deny that dwelling on the bad behavior of brethren is seductive. The devil makes it seductive. He loves to get us brooding over all the wrongs, real and imagined, that we have suffered. However, if we are committed to the higher calling of imitating Christ, that is precisely what we must not do.
If you’re thinking about giving up on God’s people, let me appeal to you. Don’t remember their sins. Remember their good works. Don’t remember the failed Christians. Remember the amazing ones.
Remember all the people whom you have seen with your own eyes be devoted to the word, joyful in worship, humble before the King, generous to the poor, and hospitable to everyone. Remember the brethren who did reach out rather than dwelling on the ones who didn’t.
And if the same brother who opens his wallet to people off the street loves himself a good political rant on Facebook too, make the choice that God makes. Overlook the sin committed in ignorance (unless you believe that you never sin ignorantly). Celebrate the goodness.
In short, love, and continue to belong accordingly. If ever there were a church that didn’t need grace to reveal its good works, none of us would have a right to belong to it.
Some ways of thinking seem to lend themselves naturally to apostasy. There are some arguments that, if you find yourself making them, are signs that you are about to abandon the truth. Among these is the cultural-coincidence argument.
It goes like this: “I know that X has been the traditional understanding of Scripture for hundreds or thousands of years, but I’m a better Bible student than all of those other people, and I have arrived at the more enlightened understanding of Y. Coincidentally, X is something that the worldly culture around me dislikes, and Y is something that it celebrates. Isn’t it wonderful that my new, 100 percent intellectually honest, interpretation is helping me to win the friendship of the world?”
Perhaps this is cynical of me, but when I see people making arguments like this, I tend to suspect that maybe, just maybe, they are using the world to understand the Bible rather than using the Bible to understand the world.
One of the more obvious places where this occurs is in the recent re-reading of Scripture to endorse the practice of homosexuality. Apparently, all those passages that people of faith have always understood as condemning same-sex intimacy do nothing of the sort.
For instance, this revisionist interpretation claims that the sin for which Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed was not the homosexual lust expressed in Genesis 19:4-5. It was hostility to the poor. This argument is based on Ezekiel 16:49-50, in which Judah is warned not to imitate the pride and greed of Sodom.
If Ezekiel contained everything the Bible says about the sin of Sodom, the argument would be valid. However, it doesn’t. Jude 7 says that Sodom and Gomorrah sinned by engaging in gross immorality and going after strange flesh. This does not contradict Ezekiel; instead, it adds to our understanding of the wickedness of the Sodomites. Their hearts were filled with both greed and lust (and yes, it is still sinful today to be hard-hearted toward the poor).
In response to this, revisionists will sometimes argue that “going after strange flesh” means trying to have sex with angels because that’s what the visitors of Genesis 19 were. Merely having sex with men, then, would be OK.
The problem with this claim, though, is that “going after strange flesh” is a statement of intent, of desire. The Sodomites did not know that the visitors to their city were angels. As is evident from their speech, they believed they were men. They did not intend to have sex with angels (which I don’t think is possible anyway). Instead, they intended to have sex with men, and they were destroyed not for making an innocent mistake, but for acting on an evil desire.
Whenever we think we’ve found a way to re-read the Bible to accommodate what we want to believe and do, we should be very concerned. So it is here. I don’t agree with the people who reject the Bible because they believe the practice of homosexuality is good, but at least they’re being honest. On the other hand, those who twist the Scriptures to fit their pre-conceptions are not succeeding in reconciling the two. Instead, they are endorsing sin and adding to it self-deceit.
In my life, I’ve had training in logic from two main sources: the church and my secular education. The further I progressed, the more I realized that the same principles were taught in both settings. I used the same canons of logic in formal debate and law school that I saw preachers use in establishing Biblical authority.
Admittedly, the Lord’s church has developed its own weird (and unhelpful) jargon over the past 200-odd years. Nobody else talks about direct command, approved example, and necessary implication. Because of this, many brethren have concluded that we’re doing something logically unsound. In reality, the jargon is nothing more than a mask over universal principles of reasoning. We reach the same conclusions that anyone who engages the text logically will reach.
Take, for instance, what we call the silence of the Scriptures. To the argument, “The Bible doesn’t say we can,” many will indignantly reply, “Well, the Bible doesn’t say we can’t either!”
That counterargument may be emotionally satisfying, but it has a fatal flaw. It fails to consider who has the burden of proof. Outside the realm of religion, that burden of proof is universally understood to lie with the affirmative.
This holds true in formal debate. The affirmative has the responsibility of establishing the truth of the resolution that is the subject of the debate. That’s their burden of proof. If they never make a prima facie case for the resolution, the negative wins by default, even if the negative doesn’t say a word.
In the same way, in criminal law, the prosecutor has the burden of proof. He is required to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. That’s what lies behind the saying, “Innocent until proven guilty.”
Conversely, the defense attorney is not required to establish the innocence of the accused in order to secure an acquittal. His job is to poke holes in the prosecutor’s case until reasonable doubt exists. This is why juries in such cases return a verdict of “Not guilty” instead of “Innocent”. They don’t have to know that the accused is innocent; they merely have to doubt that he’s guilty. A not-guilty verdict is another way of saying, “The prosecutor didn’t meet his burden of proof.”
The silence of the Scriptures is a burden-of-proof argument too. Silence as such proves nothing. However, if the Scriptures are silent concerning, say, the use of instruments of music by Christians in worship, that silence still is extremely significant. It shows that advocates of instrumental music do not have the evidence they need to argue their case. They will fail not because the silence of the Scriptures is dispositive, but because silence means that they will be unable to meet their burden of proof. In emphasizing Scriptural silence, we are skipping analytical steps, but the conclusions we reach are sound.
My answer, then, to those who want to introduce some new practice is the same as the answer of the negative in a debate. It is the same as the answer of the defense attorney. You say that this is right? Fine. Prove it.
If, instead, you try to hold me responsible for proving a negative, you are implicitly acknowledging that your case is impossible to make.
I’m currently in a Sunday-morning Bible class that is studying 1 Corinthians. As the teacher observed, if any church in the New Testament has a bad name, it is the church in Corinth. Only the church in Sardis can compare, and we have much more information about the misdeeds of the Corinthian brethren. In fact, Christians today will often use the problems of the church in Corinth as part of an appeal to church unity. The argument goes, “If first-century Christians were supposed to stick it out in a rotten church like Corinth, we shouldn’t leave our not-nearly-as-rotten congregations today!”
Less frequently, though, do we pause to ask why the church in Corinth was the way it was. We don’t see evidence of the same kind of problems in the church in Lystra, for instance, and I think it’s because the Lystran congregation wasn’t made up of the same kind of people.
Many of the churches that Paul established had a high percentage of Jews and so-called God-fearers, Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel but weren’t willing to become proselytes because of the social implications of circumcision and food restrictions. Thus, Paul could appoint elders in all of the churches of the first missionary journey almost immediately because many of the “new” converts had been living righteous lives for decades.
Not so in Corinth. Unlike other accounts of evangelism success in Acts, Acts 18 does not mention large numbers of God-fearers obeying the gospel. Some Jews did, but most remained hostile. Instead, the Corinthian church contained significant numbers of people who came out of the wicked lifestyles mentioned in the doleful catalogue of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, practitioners of homosexuality, and so forth.
There is also evidence in 1 Corinthians that many Corinthian disciples were former members of pagan mystery cults who tried to import mystery-cult practices into the worship of Jesus. Not surprisingly, elders do not appear in any of the Biblical accounts of Corinth. The necessary baseline of spiritual maturity wasn’t present.
It is also hardly surprising when a church with many converts from the world with all kinds of baggage has serious problems. However, let’s not miss the forest for the trees here. Corinth was a church WITH MANY CONVERTS FROM THE WORLD. Today, we may pride ourselves on how well behaved our congregations are compared to Corinth, but the good behavior is due to the near absence of new converts.
Here, I fear, is one of the underlying reasons for the near-universal failure of the Lord’s church in the United States to be evangelistically effective. We have our nice little churches, full of nice people from the right social classes, and we don’t want to reach out to the have-nots with all kinds of lifestyle problems, even though they are the ones most likely to listen.
Do you want to go to church with somebody who thinks incest is a grand idea? Do you want to go to church with people who are so disputatious they sue each other left and right? Do you want to go to church with people who view Christianity as a way to reject the rules of polite society?
If we want to re-create the first-century church, we have to be willing to re-create the Corinthian church. Yes, dealing with converts with baggage can be horrendously frustrating (just ask Paul!), but if we want to have evangelistic success, we can’t go to the folks who think they’re well. We have to go to the folks who know they’re sick.
We’re talking apples and elephants here, right? Sure, most of the denominational world disagrees with the churches of Christ about both of these things, but they’re very different kinds of issues. There are a dozen passages in the New Testament that explicitly say that we have to be baptized to be saved. There aren’t any passages in the New Testament that explicitly say we had better not use musical instruments in worship, or else.
And yet, I’ve noticed something funny about the progressive churches that end up taking “of Christ” off the sign. They’re going to bring in the instrument. That’s a given. They’re going to engage the community church down the street in the battle of the bands. To the most skilled go the visitors!
Along with that, though, they start getting awfully mushy about baptism. Consider, for instance, this video produced by The Hills Church, formerly the Richland Hills Church of Christ. The men in the video say that baptism is commanded. True. They say that baptism is an expression of our commitment to Christ. Also true.
Notice what they’re not saying, though. They’re not saying that baptism is necessary for forgiveness of sins. At one point, Rick Atchley scoffs at the notion that water washes away sins, never mind Acts 22:16. He says we’re saved by the blood of Jesus instead, making a distinction that the Bible never makes.
Additionally, if someone starts attending The Hills who was sprinkled as an infant, they say they will encourage them to get baptized as an adult. Why? Because they need to make that commitment for themselves rather than having their parents make it for them. They do not say that such people need to be baptized in order to be saved from their sins.
What in the world? As I noted above, the Scriptural witness on baptism is manifold. It doesn’t talk about commitment. It talks about salvation. Forgiveness of sins. New life. I’m pretty sure Rick Atchley owns a Bible. I suspect he’s even read it some. However, his teaching on baptism isn’t coming from the Bible.
Instead, it appears to be constructed to be as inoffensive to as many people as possible. You’ve got the old guard at The Hills, the people who were “raised in the church” and have a traditional understanding that baptism is important, even though they don’t know why. They hear these men saying “Baptism is necessary,” and they’re satisfied. No stumbling block for them.
No stumbling block for denominational visitors either, whatever their religious background might be. Somebody who has been baptized into the Baptist Church will hear this and say, “I’m good!” Somebody who is sprinkled as an infant will understand that they need to get baptized someday, but until then, they still have been saved by faith.
Baptism at the Hills ends up being like changing your furnace filter. You know you should, but it’s easy to put off. They have adopted this position not because of faithfulness to the word, but because it will be the most popular.
In practice, it is awfully hard to draw a bright line separating the adoption of the instrument and The Hills’ position on baptism. Even though the Scriptural evidence is different, the thought process is the same.
Nobody studies the New Testament and says, “Here’s the passage that plainly teaches that instrumental music is fine!” Instead, they look around, realize that instrumental worship is popular (with “the young people”, with outsiders, etc.), and then go hunting for Biblical justification. Once you start down that road with worship, you keep going with salvation.
Every congregation must decide who its lord is going to be. Is it going to be the children we hope to retain, the visitors we want to become members? Or is it going to be the One who died and was raised for us? Our approach to the word in all things will reveal the truth.