Love didn’t disappear from 20th Century Church of Christ theology. It was certainly taught. But it was never taught the way Paul taught it–
(Gal 5:6b) The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
To preach a sermon that actually agreed with Paul on this point was considered heresy — showing how very far from the Bible the 20th Century Churches of Christ had fallen.
Ironically, though, many Churches adopted this verse as a slogan, but they redefined “faith” to mean a system of doctrine, including inferences from inferences. And this made institutionalism or non-instititutionalism and hat wearing or non-hat wearing equivalent to faith in Jesus — and thus damning issues. The result was that any conclusion drawn from scripture — no matter how indirect or subtle — was treated as “faith” and so a salvation issue.
That’s what defining Christianity in terms of rules does.
So are there really rules? And if so, what are they?
Well, for one, there’s faith, which means faith in Jesus. And this excludes idolatry. So idolatry is wrong. And that means it’s wrong to make anything an idol — which disallows things like greed, as well as selfishness, as well as any loyalty of any kind that interferes with loyalty to God. If my loyalty to my country or my denomination or my political party contradicts my loyalty to God, God wins. Period. And that’s a pretty tough rule.
Of course, it doesn’t mark the Churches of Christ as uniquely saved, but that’s not the test of a good rule, not really.
And then there’s love — which Jesus defined for us as love as he loved us — that is, love so intense that we’ll die for others. That’s a much tougher rule than “don’t use a piano.” But it doesn’t separate us from the other denominations.
You see, some people actually sneer at these rules as too easy, too “liberal,” too mushy — in part because they’ve not thought seriously about how very hard they are. And in part because they started the conversation wanting to show how only the Churches of Christ are going to heaven, and these rules don’t get them to that conclusion and so must be minimized in preference to “better” rules.
And it bothers some people that these aren’t yes/no rules. In other words, it’s pretty easy to ask: do you use a piano? It’s yes or no. Love and faith are kind of fuzzy. We all love some, but do we love as we should? We really never get there, do we? And we Christians all have faith, but we often struggle with idolatry and our faith can be weak — and it’s certainly never strong enough.
Therefore, it’s hard to check the box “yes” or “no.” The answer tends to be “yes, but ….” And if we see salvation and Christianity as being about the rules, well, this is terribly distressing because we can gain no comfort at all. We can say with assurance that we have the right position on faith and on love, but we can’t say we’ve actually lived these things so well that we can check the box “yes.”
And in a religion, such as the 20th Century Churches of Christ, that defines salvation by a checklist of “yes” and “no” answers on the “issues,” to declare that faith and love are vastly more important than the yes/no issues is to create chaos — because how will we know? If salvation is about having the right positions, then when we move to an overarching emphasis on the right heart and virtues instead, well, we can no longer be so confident in ourselves.
And that’s a big problem. If I can’t be confident in my salvation from having all the right positions on the rules, where else could my confidence come from?
(2 Cor 3:4-5) Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. 5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.
(Eph 3:12) In [Jesus Christ our Lord] and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
Indeed, we find here another rule. The rule is: don’t be confident in yourself; be confident in Jesus. If the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love, then my competence and my expertise on the issues don’t count — so long as I have faith that expresses itself through love.
And we need to consider one more essential passage —
(2 Pet 1:5-11) For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
10 Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
According to v. 10, how do I make my salvation “sure”? Well, if I “do these things.” What things? Faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perserverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love — in increasing measure. Christian virtues. Oh, wow!
Each of these virtues is a step toward a mature Christian love. They aren’t independent boxes to check, but a roadmap toward growth.
And these aren’t positions on the issues — which leads, of course, to the natural and obvious objection: How can it not be important to have the right positions? Do I just throw all my Bible notes and knowledge away?
And here’s the turning point. No. Keep your notes. Retain your knowledge. Just stop imagining that they keep you saved and stop imagining that those people who disagree with you on instrumental music or whether an elder must have two or more children are damned. They are saved by faith expressing itself through love, too.
But since they have faith and truly love God and his people, they will study hard to get the right answers on how to organize and worship. Just as you do. And you’ll sometimes disagree. And you’ll both still be saved. Salvation isn’t found in the issues. It’s found in Jesus, and we are baptized into Jesus upon faith and repentance. And that’s how we stay in Jesus.
You see, the major flaw in 20th Century Chruch of Christ teaching was the presumption that getting all the “issues” right was the path to salvation. That’s Gnosticism, the attempt to find salvation through knowledge. The deadly, dangerous thing about Gnosticism is that it’s very close to the truth. Of course, Bible study is good. Of course, knowledge of the Bible is important. Of course, we should study. Yes, yes, yes! But this isn’t what saves us. This is, rather, how we serve Jesus now that we’ve been saved.
Now, for the sake of space, just a few quick conclusions —
1. The way we fall away is plainly taught in the Bible. We can surrender our faith (1 John 4:2-3), we can surrender our submission to Jesus as Lord (Heb 10:26-27), or we can seek salvation by some means other than faith (Gal 5:1-6). If we no longer submit to Jesus as Lord, it’ll be because we want to be our own lords, which is both idolatry and selfishness, that is, a lack of love.
2. I’ve not dealt with baptism here, because baptism is solely about how to become saved, rather than how to stay saved. The main thing to remember about baptism is that it’s not a work and therefore we don’t need to teach salvation by works to defend baptism. Baptism is always in the passive voice and so is something received, not done. It’s a gift.
The 20th Century Churches of Christ made a huge blunder by buying the argument that baptism is a work and that therefore we are saved by works — despite Paul’s repeated statements to the contrary. This led to ignoring, abusing, misunderstanding, and even contradicting much of Paul. It’s a bad place to be.
3. None of this sets aside what the scriptures say on elders, the role of women, etc. What the Bible teaches should be honored and obeyed. But it does affect how we understand these passages. No one would argue that these passages be ignored. But they can’t be understood correctly by someone who sees the Bible in terms of rules, issues, and checkboxes. It’s not until we leave our legalism behind that the truths of these passages can be seen.
4. We’ve not even touched on the Spirit — and the coming of the Spirit to the church was prophesied going all the way back to Deuteronomy. The 20th Century Churches of Christ were so anxious to repudiate Irresistible Grace and Pentecostalism that we declared the Spirit dead in 100 AD, which distorted much of our understanding the New Testament. This all makes much better sense when the work of the Spirit today — directly on the heart of the Christian — is understood.
You see, to a rules-oriented mind, direct operation necessarily means direct revelation of the rules, because it’s all about the rules. But when we see Christianity in terms of love, faith, and Christian virtues, we understand the Spirit’s work in us to be primarily about those very things —
(Gal 5:22-23) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
And these are no longer matters best studied by the Ladies Bible Class; rather, these fruit are Paul’s explanation of what faith expressing itself through love does – in contrast to justification by works. And so, if these aren’t a huge part of your theology, you have the wrong theology.
There’s much more, of course, but I hope this begins to explain while choices 1, 2, and 3 are each wrong.