In the last post of this series, I pointed out how the conservative Church of Christ preachers often treat “faith” as including a comprehensive doctrinal system, rather than simply faith in Jesus. Wayne Jackson, in the Christian Courier, gave a string of verses supposedly proving that very point, and yet not a single one teaches what he says it teaches.
And this is critically important. You see, this abuse of “faith” has caused us to repeatedly make some deeply serious mistakes. But before we get there, I want to make another point. The fact is that where the progressives and conservatives disagree, the conservatives routinely cite a long list of verses, and the verses routinely don’t mean what the conservatives say they mean. And when challenged, the conservatives routinely change the subject.
In GraceConversation, Phil Sander posted a piece citing numerous verses to support his view that the “New Testament makes it abundantly clear that doctrinal error can lead to eternal damnation.” I then went through every verse and showed that not a single one stands for what he said it stands for. Not one. See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Phil never responded.
I don’t think Phil is dishonest. I just think that he works in an environment where no one ever checks his citations. And that says a lot about the conservative Churches of Christ. (And this is one reason I rarely moderate comments. If I’m wrong, I want and expect someone to catch me. It keeps me on my toes and makes me a better writer.)
Now, back to the meaning of “faith.” Many conservative Church of Christ arguments hinge on the false definition that Jackson and others insist on.
Faith vs. opinion
For example, the early Restoration Movement leaders taught,
In faith, unity
In opinions, liberty
In all things, charity
Much of my life was spent listening to others argue whether something is faith or opinion. Thus, in the non-institutional controversy, those opposed to supporting orphanages out of the church treasury said that the lack of authority for such support is a question of “faith.” Those permitting support said it’s a question of “opinion.”
Those who see it as a “faith” issue generally conclude that faith is a salvation issue. Those seeing it as an opinion issue generally see it as not a salvation issue (except when emotions are high).
But, obviously enough, neither is about faith in Jesus — other than the fact that those with faith will be penitent and so obey Jesus as they understand him. People on both sides can and do have faith in Jesus. It is, therefore, in the vocabulary of the Restoration leaders, “opinion” — regardless of the side you choose. (For a more thorough discussion, see this three-year old post.)
In fact, nearly every 20th Century split in the Churches of Christ was a disagreement over whether a question is “faith” or “opinion” — all because of a really bad, completely indefensible definition of “faith.”
(Neither side caught the mistake because both sides enjoyed using this preposterous argument to win debates. You see, at times both sides wanted their side to be about “faith” so they could declare the other side damned. That’s how it was.)
The Regulative Principle is the notion that anything lacking authority is sin — indeed, damning. One of the classic arguments goes along the lines found on the Fairborn Church of Christ website —
Sixth: Is it sinful for Christians to participate in the celebrating of Christmas as a religious holiday?
Christians are to walk by faith. II Cor. 5:7. Faith comes by hearing God’s word. Rom. 10:17. “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin,” Rom. 14:23. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Heb. 11 :6. “If any man speaks let him speak as the oracles of God.” I Pet. 4:11. There is no hint in the Scriptures that would cause us to believe God would permit us to engage in this heathen custom and yet please him.
If “faith” means commands, necessary inference, and binding examples, or maybe if it means “a doctrinal system,” then the logic might hold. But that’s not what the word means.
We do need to consider Rom 14:23 very briefly.
(Rom 14:23 ESV) But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
What does Paul mean by “proceed from faith”? The Greek is even more obscure: “that which not of faith is sin.” The meaning is found in a deeper understanding of faith. “Faith” is more than intellectual assent. Faith requires commitment. As Paul wrote,
(Rom 10:9) That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
When we were saved, we repented — that is, we accepted Jesus as Lord. We submitted to the rule of Jesus in our lives. Indeed, the word for faith, pistis in the Greek, also includes the idea of faithfulness, which is how the word is often translated.
And I can’t do what I believe to be sin and be faithful in doing it. The state of my heart matters. If I think I’m being disobedient in my actions, even if I’m mistaken due to my weak faith, in my heart I’m a sinner, and God judges the heart.
This does not mean it’s a sin to honor Christ on Christmas as a religious holiday because it’s not authorized. “Faith” isn’t a system of doctrine, nor is “faith” the Bible. Indeed, if I worship Jesus on December 25, it’s an act of faith — and obviously so. And the heart still matters.
Definitions matters. And when we abuse God’s word just to win a debate, we divide God’s church. Flee such teachers.