Monty wrote a comment that I greatly appreciate, because I’m sure he speaks for many readers in what he says. He raises questions that deserve an answer.
Isn’t baptism for remission of sins the greatest divide between members of churches of Christ and other groups? And what of the Lord’s Supper? Are we to now go to a quarterly system to “fit in” with the Baptist Church across the street? I seriously doubt that the restoration leaders would have ever gone back into that which they felt like they had “come out of” (studied their way out of) and distinguished themselves from, whether they felt like there were those saved among the sects or not.
I have no desire to come under Baptist, Methodist, or any other “ist” teachings. We may all agree by faith that Jesus is the Messiah and for that reason I feel like we have more in common than what separates us but there are still some huge hurdles to fellowshipping that I’m not willing to jump over (I see it as a compromise of truth) and neither would they to meet me.
I think the overwhelming majority of members of the Churches of Christ feel exactly this way, and the view is, I’m sure, very common in other denominations as well. The issues will differ, but denominations largely exist because of doctrinal disagreements. How do we deal with those in the real world?
Let’s start with some examples of how these very issues have been resolved by churches right here in Tuscaloosa.
Baptism. A few years ago, several churches in town got together to sponsor a Franklin Graham Crusade. They invited the other churches in town to help. In particular, they needed volunteers to meet and study with people who would come forward to confess faith in Jesus and become Christians. The question arose: how to deal with differing interpretations of how to do that?
The decision was made that the person studying with the potential convert would teach what he considered to be the correct understanding of how to be baptized and be accepted by Jesus.
There was no fight or controversy. The matter was resolved by the conscience of the person teaching Jesus to the convert.
Lord’s Supper. We have a very fine Wesleyan Church in the town. They take communion quarterly, but have some members who grew up in the Churches of Christ, and they believe in weekly communion. Therefore, the church offers a special weekly communion service for those who wish to partake, without condescension or resentment.
Imagine that the heart of these “denominational” leaders existed in the Churches of Christ. How would the one cup controversy have been resolved? Well, I suppose that multi-cup churches would have provided a one-cup service for those who so requested — without condescension or resentment — as an act of love.
What about the non-institutional controversy? Well, I used to attend a church that took up two collections, one for the general fund of the church and one just for an orphanage. Those who could not give to the orphanage were not expected to give.
How might the no-Sunday School controversy have been resolved? My wife grew up in a church with pro-Sunday School and anti-Sunday School members. They had Sunday School, but those who could not participate in good conscience weren’t expected to participate and they were treated as beloved brothers and sisters in good standing.
The problem, however, is that in all three of those controversies one or both sides (usually both) insisted on damning the other side, and as a result, refused fellowship with and feared submission to those on the other side. Rather than being treated as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, they were demonized as not faithful and damned for their error.
As a result, we find being in the same congregation with those who disagree with us on some doctrinal point as unimaginable. Old habits die hard. We just can’t imagine how it would even be possible, because we’ve been preached at over and over that it’s not possible.
But, of course, if both sides are Christians who understand God’s grace, they can get along, just as Romans 14 teaches. It will often be inconvenient, but it’s the kind of inconvenience that families gladly suffer for each other. Indeed, one of the biggest sins we commit is our unwillingness to be inconvenienced for our brothers and sisters. Unity is not a driving motivation among us. We find it far more important to keep ourselves separated from those in error than to seek unity across doctrinal lines.
Here’s how I see it.
- We are commanded to be unified with our fellow Christians — all of them.
- We are assured that those with faith in Jesus are saved.
- We are promised that the Holy Spirit will help us in our obedience.
Thus, the question is whether we obey and believe and trust. Are we willing to tell God that faith and the Spirit are not enough, that we just couldn’t find a way to get together with our brothers and sisters because we disagreed over whatever? Can you imagine the audacity it would take to tell God Almighty that his command could not be obeyed? That faith is not really enough to unite us? That the Spirit just doesn’t give enough help?
And won’t we in the Churches of Christ be embarrassed when God points to those in other denominations who’ve humbly and lovingly sought ways to be in fellowship with us while we turned our noses up at them? You see, not a single Church of Christ helped with the Franklin Graham Crusade, despite the fact that we could have taught baptism exactly as we believe to many, many converts. (Several members participated without the blessings of their leadership. The Spirit is alive, well, and working despite our best efforts to quench him.)
I can certainly imagine cases where it would be far more difficult to be united despite our disagreements. But why is it that we don’t treat our brothers and sisters as our brothers and sisters in those cases where it’s easy? You see, our refusal to lift a finger to be united across denominational lines is not occasioned by the difficulty of finding a way. Whose conscience would be offended if we prayed together? If we painted houses together? If we served tornado victims together? If we worshiped God together a cappella?
If a Church of Christ were to invite the other churches in town to join them for an evening of a cappella singing, would they come? Well, we’ve done it, they came, and it was an incredibly uplifting, Jesus-honoring service.
So … baby steps. Rather than looking for reasons to declare it impossible, start with the easy steps. Do them. Meet your brothers and sisters. Pray with them. Study the Bible together. (Many of women Church of Christ members already participate in neighborhood Bible studies that cross denominational lines. Ask them what it’s like. You’ll hear some powerful testimony!)
Then try to imagine a world where denominational lines don’t matter because we don’t have to meet only with those who agree with us about everything. Imagine being willing to have your ideas challenged by deeply spiritual people who come from a very different background. Imagine being able to contribute to the mix some of the truly marvelous ideas that founded the Restoration Movement.
This is not hard. Well, it wouldn’t be hard except for the persecution you’ll suffer from some of your Church of Christ brothers and sisters, even members of your own family. You will be disfellowshipped by some church down the road. You might lose some dear friends.
But Christianity comes with a cost, and part of that cost is being willing to be persecuted for the sake of Jesus.
(Mat 5:11-12 ESV) 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Do you believe it?
(Eph 4:1-3 ESV) I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
(Eph 4:11-13 ESV) 1 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,
(1Pe 3:8 ESV) 8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
(1Co 3:11-17 ESV) 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. … 16 Do you not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [plural]? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.