How The Early Church Approached Entertainment

I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. – John 17.14-17

Christianity requires separation from the world. From the very beginning, Christians were urged to keep themselves “unstained by the world” (Jas. 1.27), to avoid “friendship with the world” (Jas. 4.4), not to be “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12.2). John urged Christians not to “love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2.15-16).

Therefore when it comes to our entertainment choices, almost all Christians agree that to at least some extent, Christians should be different from the world.

Christians often disagree about where to “draw the line”. “How much bad language and content can be in a movie before it becomes inappropriate for a Christian?”  “How ‘worldly’ does a party need to be before it before a Christians can no longer go?” These type of questions can sometimes be tricky. That is why it is worthwhile to consider thoughts from the early Christians.

By “early Christians” I am referring to Christians prior to the year 313 AD, the year the Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christianity. Going from a persecuted religion to a government-endorsed religion greatly lessened the degree to which Christians remained separate from the world.

Just like Christians from all generations, these early Christians were flawed. Sometimes they made mistakes. They were certainly capable of “drawing the line” in the wrong places. They wrote uninspired words, and we are free to disagree with them. But they were very sincere. Some of these early Christians personally knew the apostles, and they all personally knew the first generation of Christians. When it comes to questions of entertainment, we would be wise to at least consider the points they raise.

The Early Christians Were Not Opposed to Entertainment

The early Christians were not opposed to having fun and enjoying life.  But they did have different values from the world around them, and thus they found different kinds of things to be entertaining.

For example, consider the words of Tertullian (160-220 AD), one of the most prolific and well respected early Christian writers:

We renounce all your spectacles, as strongly as we renounce the matters originating them, which we know were conceived of superstition, when we give up the very things which are the basis of their representations. Among us nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard, which has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theater, the atrocities of the arena, the useless exercises of the wrestling-ground. Why do you take offense at us because we differ from you in regard to your pleasures? If we will not partake of your enjoyments, the loss is ours, if there be loss in the case, not yours. We reject what pleases you. You, on the other hand, have no taste for what is our delight. – Apology, chapter 38

For clarification, when Tertullian speaks of “circuses”, he isn’t referring to clowns and acrobats, but to chariot races. He objected to chariot races because of how dangerous they were and because of the madness of the crowds that attended such events.

According to Tertullian, Christians were not opposed to finding certain things delightful and entertaining. What made Christians different was their consideration of the content of the entertainment. Christians did not find violence, idolatry, or immorality delightful, therefore they refused entertainment based upon these vices. Christians are delighted by different kind of things – things which the world may or may not recognize as entertaining.

The Importance of Considering Content

Athenagoras (133-190 AD) pointed to the fact that it would be hypocritical to support the death penalty or abortion while refusing to even enjoy violent entertainment such as gladiator events.

Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of the gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? – A Plea for New Christians, Chapter 35

For modern Christians, it can often seem very easy to separate the things we watch from the things we actually support. Yet for at least some of the early Christians, they refused to make such a separation. For Athenagoras, to see be entertained by watching a man be put to death was the moral equivalent of actually killing him.

Similarly, Theophilus (died in 183 AD) believed that the things we watch and hear can cause defilement.

We are forbidden even to witness the shows of gladiators, so that we do not become partakers and abettors of murders. Nor may we see the other spectacles, lest our eyes and ears be defiled, participating in the utterances they sing there.

For if one should speak of cannibalism, in these spectacles the children of Theyestes and Terus are eaten. As for adultery – both in the case of men and gods… this is made the subject of their dramas.

But far be it from Christians to conceive any such deeds. For with them temperance dwells, self-restraint is practiced, monogamy is observed, chastity is guarded, iniquity exterminated, sin extirpated, righteousness exercised, law administered, worship performed, God acknowledged. Truth governs, grace guards, peace screens them. The holy word guides, wisdom teaches, life directs, God reigns. – To Autolycus, III:15

Theophilus believed the things we watch and hear can defile us. Since Christians are of a different character, they refused to be entertained by violent, immoral, idolatrous, or adulterous entertainment.

Avoiding Hypocrisy

Around the year 200 AD, Tertullian wrote a treatise titled “De Spectaculis”, also known as “The Shows”, in which he argued that entertainment can be an offense to God. One of Tertullian’s chief concerns was the hypocrisy of those who typically avoid worldly passions, while continuing to expose themselves to those very same worldly passions through their entertainment choices.

The father who carefully protects and guards his virgin daughter’s ears from every polluting word, takes her to the theater himself, exposing her to all its vile words and attitudes. – “The Shows”, Chapter 21

Evangelistic Concerns

Closely related to Tertullian’s concerns about hypocrisy are his concerns about how a Christian’s entertainment choices impacts the influence on others.

We should have no connection with the things which we abjure, whether in deed or word, whether by looking on them or looking forward to them; but do we not abjure and rescind that baptismal pledge, when we cease to bear its testimony? Does it then remain for us to apply to the heathen themselves. Let them tell us, then, whether it is right in Christians to frequent the show. Why, the rejection of these amusements is the chief sign to them that a man has adopted the Christian faith. If any one, then, puts away the faith’s distinctive badge, he is plainly guilty of denying it. What hope can you possibly retain in regard to a man who does that? When you go over to the enemy’s camp, you throw down your arms, desert the standards and the oath of allegiance to your chief: you cast in your lot for life or death with your new friends. – “The Shows”, Chapter 24

The early Christians didn’t purposefully seek to be odd or different, but when they refused entertainment with immoral content, people took notice. They saw their different choices, and they wondered “Hmm… I wonder if so-and-so is a Christian now.”

The opposite was also true. When Christians stopped rejecting certain types of entertainment they lost their badge of distinctiveness. According to Tertullian, this was the equivalent of forsaking their baptism and joining up with the enemy.

Entertainment’s Influence

Cyprian (200-258 AD) also believed that entertainment was extremely influential. Through entertainment, we are introduced to thoughts – thoughts of sinful things which have been done, or could possibly be done, and we learn from what we see.

In the theaters also you will behold what may well cause you grief and shame. It is the tragic buskin which relates in verse the crimes of ancient days. The old horrors of parricide and incest are unfolded in action calculated to express the image of the truth, so that, as the ages pass by, any crime that was formerly committed may not be forgotten. Each generation is reminded by what it hears, that whatever has once been done may be done again. Crimes never die out by the lapse of ages; wickedness is never abolished by process of time; impiety is never buried in oblivion. Things which have now ceased to be actual deeds of vice become examples. In the mimes, moreover, by teaching of infamies, the spectator is attracted either to reconsider what he may have done in secret, or to hear what he may do. Adultery is learned while it is seen; and while the mischief having public authority panders to vices, the matron, who perchance had gone to the spectacle a modest woman, returns from it immodest. – Cyprian’s Epistle 1.8

Entertainment Matters

It should be noted that during this time there was never any such thing as plays or dramas that didn’t contain things such as pagan mythology and idolatry, sexual immorality, or murder. There were no such things as chariot races or sporting events that did not glorify idolatry and violence. The primary concern of the early Christians was avoiding the immoral content of entertainment rather than avoiding entertainment for its own sake.

It should also be noted that the early church didn’t have any mandated rules when it came to entertainment. They didn’t put anybody out of the church if they “drew the line” in a different place and decided to attend a play or a sporting event. But they did continually emphasize the importance of avoiding immoral influences.

Were these early Christians right? Did they did they draw the lines in the right places? Maybe or maybe not. They were not inspired, and we are certainly free to disagree with them. But they also made some really good (and challenging) points that we should all consider. It is so easy to make moral compromises for the sake of entertainment. Yet there is no reason why Christians should not continue to strive to be different from the world, even when it comes to our entertainment.

Why We Don’t Sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

When I was younger, I was taught that the most important part of our worship in song wasn’t the notes, but rather the words. When we sing to God, we are also speaking to and teaching one another (Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16). We should be able to “sing with the mind” (1 Cor. 14.15).

Every Sunday, our worship is filled with wonderful, beautiful, theologically rich hymns which remind us of biblical truths.  But growing up in the church, there was one song that we didn’t sing. In fact, we avoided it. We never sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It’s not that we didn’t know the song (if you know the tune of “Booster”, you know the song). But rather, we avoided it because of its anti-Christian message.

Of course, there are some who remain ignorant of the song’s history and its anti-Christian theology. There have been rare occasions (usually near a patriotic holiday) where I’ve heard this song led in worship. But those occasions are rare. And even when the song is led, there are usually at least a handful of Christians throughout the auditorium standing there in awkward silence.

It is important to pay attention to the message we teach with our songs. That’s why many Christians don’t sing the “Battle Hymn.”

The Origins of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

(Source: Chapter 8 of Julia Ward Howe’s biography. You can read it here.)

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written in 1861 by a northern political activist, Julia Ward Howe. As an abolitionist, she was convinced that the Union cause was moral and righteous, and thus felt justified in supporting the destruction of her southern neighbors.

Returning from a visit to Washington in 1861, her carriage was delayed by marching regiments of Union soldiers. To pass the time, she and her companions sang several war songs which were popular at the time. Among them was a song called “John Brown’s Body”.

John Brown’s body lied a-moulding in the grave,
His soul is marching on!

The tune was catchy, and it wasn’t long until the marching soldiers joined in singing with her. One of her friends then suggested to her, “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?”

Early the following morning the following lyrics came to her:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

After the song was published in 1862, it quickly found its way into military camps, and was frequently sung in exhortation before battles, and was sung joyously upon the news of military victories. In describing why she had written the song, Howe said:

Something seems to say to me, “You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.” Yet, because of my sincere desire, a word was given to me to say, which did strengthen the hearts of those who fought in the field and of those who languished in the prison.

Despite originating during the war, it is important to realize that opposition to singing this “hymn” has nothing to do with who we think was right or wrong during the war. It has everything to do with the anti-Christian message of the song.

The Theology of the “Battle Hymn”

Like many who lived in the 19th century, Howe was very familiar with the Bible. Therefore the song is filled with language and imagery from Scripture. The song certainly has a spiritual message, but the message is not a Christian message.

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is religious war propaganda. It twists and turns the biblical imagery for the purpose of “strengthening the hearts” of union soldiers as they fought and killed their southern neighbors. Far from being a Christian hymn, the “Battle Hymn” is anti-Christian to the core.

Revelation 19 and the Coming of the Lord

The phrase “coming of the Lord” is understood to refer to the 2nd coming of Christ (1 Thess. 4.15; Jas. 5.7-8). Despite the fact that the phrase “coming of the Lord” never appears in the book of Revelation, most of the songs images are drawn from Revelation 19.

And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which not one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “King of kings, and Lord of lords.” – Rev. 19.11-16

In this passage, violence, war, and judgment seem to accompany the appearance of Christ, who arrives on a white horse (a common image used for Roman military conquerors). The passage describes Jesus in a blood-drenched robe treading out the “wine press of the fierce wrath of God.” Howe poetically uses the image to describe the Lord “Trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

The problem is that Howe wrote this lyric, not for the purpose of trusting in the Lord’s judgment, but rather for the purpose of giving Union troops license to kill their southern enemies. Americans have continually heard this popular patriotic song exactly as it was intended by Howe to be understood – as a validation for Americans to destroy enemies whom they judge as being immoral.

As Howe wrote the following verses with Union soldiers in mind, seeking to “offer service to their cause”, even the triumph of the gospel and the birth of Christ and twisted into justification for war.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on!

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat,
O be swift, my soul, to answer Him, Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on!

In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on!

John’s Use of Military Imagery

The Bible is no stranger to using military imagery (1 Tim. 1.18; 2 Tim. 2.3), and Revelation 19 is no exception. But Julia Ward Howe and John of Patmos use military imagery to opposite ends.

Howe used the military imagery of Revelation 19 to “strengthen the hearts” of union soldiers as they marched into battle against their enemies. John used Roman military imagery to show that Christ (as opposed to Roman military leaders) will ultimately win the day. If we are looking for a heroic conqueror on a white horse to ride in and save the day, John doesn’t want for us to look for a Roman military leader, a Union General, or any other military hero. He wants us to look to Christ.

By the time Revelation was written, the “sword” was already commonly understood by Christians as a figure of the word of God (Eph. 6.17; Heb. 4.12). Earlier in the book of Revelation, Christ is described as having a sword coming out of his mouth, strongly reinforcing this image (Rev. 1.16). The fact that Revelation 19 describes the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth indicates that the “weapon” John envisions is not the “burnished rows of steel”, but rather the God’s word.

John then describes how the sword is used to strike down the nations and rule them with a rod of iron. This is quite the opposite of Howe’s usage of Revelation’s imagery to “strengthen the hearts of those who fought” for her nation. In Revelation 19, the nations are not the victors. Rather the nations, having been deceived by Babylon (Rev. 18.23), are the ones who are defeated by the triumphant word of God.

The Victory of the Lamb

The book of Revelation not only assures us of Christ’s victory, it also gives us understanding as to how God destroys evil.

Amid all the violence and evil in the world, Revelation 5 gives good news. The victorious Lion of Judah is here to fight for us! But the surprising thing is that when John turns around to see the Lion, He looks like a slain Lamb.

“And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain.” (Rev. 5.6)

Significantly, a similar surprise is seen in the Revelation 19 battle scene. A close reading will show that the blood on Christ’s garment was not that of his enemies. Christ is described as being covered in blood (v. 13) before the enemies are struck down (v. 15). The blood is not that of His enemies. It is His own blood.

At the conclusion of Jesus’s conquest, He bears a new title: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (v. 16). Jesus replaces every other king, lord, or other political power which may demand our allegiance. Immediately after the conquest, the kings, the military commanders, the mighty men, the horses are their riders are all defeated (vs. 17-18).

Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn to strengthen others in their allegiance to the Union. Revelation 19 challenges us to give our allegiance to Him who is Faithful and True as opposed to giving our allegiance to the nations of this earth with their kings and military conquerors. The “Battle Hymn” uses the same images, but to a completely opposite end.

Choose Your Side

Though the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is filled with scriptural images, it has nothing to do with following Jesus. This is why many Christians don’t sing the “Battle Hymn”. We don’t sing the “Battle Hymn”, because we have decided to give our allegiance and worship to Christ alone, rejecting allegiance to any other defeated king, lord, or political entity.

What Would You Do If Someone Attacked Your Family?

“You blow their heads off. Next question.” At least that’s how most would answer.

But for pacifists, this question poses the ultimate dilemma. Either they are exposed as being inconsistent in their stance against violence, or if they maintain their consistency and refuse to protect their loved ones, they are exposed as unloving or even immoral.

I don’t consider myself a true pacifist. My only aim is to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. But regardless of your stance on pacifism, if you are a Christian you need to think carefully about the implications of your commitment to follow Jesus even in the most extreme scenarios.

The Dilemma For a Christian

Can a disciple of Jesus kill an attacker at the door? Maybe (or maybe not). But before joining in with the masses and yelling “shoot him!” we would be wise to pause consider the implication of our answer – not as a pacifist, but as a Christian.

If a Christian has gotten to the point where “blow his head off!” is seen as the only possible response to the threat of violence, there is a deep problem. How has our love for our enemies gone so far astray that we could envision killing them without even batting an eye or even allowing for the slightest grief to enter our minds? How have we become so blind to the love of God that we would not strive to find another possible way out of the scenario? (cf. Rom. 5.7-10).

Yes, perhaps we would be completely justified in killing the attacker. But first, we need to at least pause long enough and think about how Christians are commanded to treat their enemies, and how these commands might impact our response.

Christians are never to repay evil with evil (Rom. 12.17; cf. 1 Thess. 5.15; 1 Pet. 3.9). Jesus commanded:

“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” – Matthew 5.39

Not only are we commanded to love our enemies, we’re specifically commanded to “do good to them” (Lk. 6.27-28).

What’s more, there’s never an exception clause. Jesus never said anything like “love your enemies, unless a loved one is threatened” or “do good to your enemies, but use some common sense too.” He simply commanded us to love them. Period. Don’t resist them. Period. Do good to them. Period.

I suppose Jesus could have assumed that there would be times when His “love your enemy” commands would not apply, and perhaps He just didn’t feel the need to spell out all the exceptions to the rule. But if there are exceptions, they are never explicitly spelled out in Scripture.

On the surface “love your enemy” seems simple enough.  But when it comes to protecting innocent loved ones from death, almost all of us would instinctively feel justified in using violence if we absolutely had to.

So pacifists aren’t the only ones with a dilemma. As Christians, we are required to love our enemies and do good to them, and yet, surely we must protect innocent people when it is in our power to do so.

Don’t Settle for Bad Proof Texts

Christians have sought to resolve this dilemma in various ways. One option is to turn to various Old Testament passages, such as those which authorize the death penalty (Ex. 21.12-14) or command the destruction of enemies (Deut. 20.16-17). Others may turn to various New Testament passages, such as when Jesus used a whip in the temple (Mt. 21.12-17) or when Jesus commanded his disciples to buy a sword (Lk. 22.36), or when Paul wrote that governments “do not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13.4) to argue that violence is acceptable to God.

These are good points. None of these objections should be flippantly dismissed. They all deserve to be explored in depth and followed to their logical conclusions. But as we do so, we must be careful not to twist scripture away from its context or stretch scriptures beyond their intended purposes. If we aren’t careful, we can get so focused on finding justification for violence that we can overlook how many of these proof texts are actually contained within contexts which oppose violence.

My point here isn’t to answer every objection, but simply to encourage us to be careful and honest with the text. If you want to explore any of these arguments in more depth, I encourage you to consider these articles I’ve written previously.

Did Jesus Really Mean “Don’t Resist an Evildoer”?

Another approach is to point out that when Jesus said “do not resist an evildoer”, the word for “resist” doesn’t refer to any and all types of resistance, but rather refers specifically to violent resistance. Therefore Jesus wasn’t implying that His disciples should just passively allow evil to take place, but only condemns responding to violence with more violence.

This argument certainly helps. For example, in most real life “attacker at the door” scenarios, there would likely be other non-violent ways to protect a loved one. You could run. You could hide. You could offer to pacify the attacker by complying and giving him money or whatever he wants. You could pray that God would somehow providentially intervene and protect your family (and please, let’s not scoff at prayer as if it would never work. See James 5.16). You might even consider non-lethal resistance, such as tackling the guy to eliminate further threat.

But while this might help soften the dilemma, it doesn’t completely solve it either. Usually the “attacker at the door” question is designed as a hypothetical scenario, where “kill or be killed” are literally the only two options. To argue for another, more peaceful way out is, in a sense, dodging the true intent of the question. We are still left to wrestle with the full weight of the hypothetical worst case scenario.

Who Is My Enemy?

Another option is to convince ourselves that when Jesus wasn’t referring to our enemies. He wasn’t referring to the attacker at the door. He must have been referring to some other kind of enemy – a less serious enemy – one who isn’t threatening the lives of innocent people. Therefore we should feel completely justified in killing the attacker at the door.

The problem is that this approach ultimately reduces Jesus’s enemy-loving commands to “love your enemies when it makes sense to you.”  Yet the whole point of Jesus’s command to love our enemies is to instruct His disciples to be radically different from others.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. – Luke 6.32-33

Everyone hates those who threaten them or want to kill their loved ones. The point of the command isn’t just to love our enemies when it makes sense to us. It is to challenge us to love them in those times when it doesn’t make common sense to love them.

What’s more, Jesus taught at a time when the Jews viewed Romans as foreign invaders – enemies who were known to crucify Jews just simply to flex their muscles and remind them who was in charge. They viewed them as enemies precisely because they felt like their loved ones were threatened. Far from being an exception to the rule, the attacker at the door is almost a perfect representation of the kind of enemy Jesus had in mind.

The Lesser of Two Evils

The “lesser of two evils” argument only works in a true worst case scenario, where choosing not to kill the attacker at the door is essentially a choice to do harm to a loved one. For example, we may agree that it is wrong to kill an enemy, but at the same time, it would be wrong to allow an innocent person to suffer when it is in our power to prevent it. We are ultimately left with only two choices: either we do good to our enemy (Lk. 6.27) or we love our neighbor (Mt. 22.39). Like a doctor faced with the choice of either amputating a leg, or allowing the patient to die, the right choice would be the lesser of two evils.

Some will argue against the lesser of two evils argument, pointing out that it puts too much confidence in our own judgments. Instead of choosing the lesser of two evils, we should simply do good to our enemies, and trust that somehow God will use our obedience for good.

Others will point to Biblical examples of faith where people chose the lesser of two evils. For example, the Hebrew midwives were willing to lie in order to protect Hebrew babies (Ex. 1.15-21), and Rahab lied to protect the Israelites spies (Josh. 2.1-21; cf. Heb. 11.31).

Does the “lesser of two evils” argument give us an exception to the rule?  This is a tough one. I can see both sides of the argument. But we should at least recognize how a faithful Christian might feel justified killing an attacker at the door despite their sincere commitment to be faithful to Jesus’s teachings.

But even so, the “lesser of two evils” argument concedes that killing an enemy is, as a general rule, an evil. This argument cannot, and must not be used to dismiss or de-radicalize Jesus’s teachings.

Faithfulness not Effectiveness

However we answer the question about the attacker at the door, we must always remember that our number one goal is not common sense, not safety, not effectiveness, but faithfulness.

What if there is an exception to the rule? What if we can be fully justified in killing an attacker at the door? If so, we must recognize an exception to the rule for what it is – an exception to the rule. We must never use the exception to replace the rule itself.

As we seek to follow Jesus there may be difficult questions and difficult scenarios we have to wrestle with. But these scenarios do not change the overall tone of Jesus’ teachings, nor should they be the primary focus of our thinking when it comes to how we think about our enemies.

So let’s not lose focus. Let’s strive to love our enemies in a way that is radically different from the world around us every single day. And then, if heaven forbid, we are ever faced with an attacker at the door, let’s strive to have the courage and wisdom to love our enemy even then.

What Is the “Church of Christ”?

Whenever someone asks me “Are you a member of the church of Christ?” I almost always hesitate before I answer.  This has nothing to do with me being ashamed of Christ or His church. Quite the opposite! I hesitate because I love the church, and I want to communicate clearly and biblically. I’ve found that the phrase “church of Christ” has come to mean different things to different people. I hesitate because a simple “yes” or “no” answer often leads to confusion or even encourages unbiblical ideas about the church.

As an illustration, consider three different ways the phrase “Church of Christ” is understood.

The Denominational Understanding

For many, the phrase “Church of Christ” is understood to refer to those churches which wear the name “Church of Christ” and associate with one another as a branch of the American Restoration Movement. Together, these “Churches of Christ” represent one branch, or one denomination of the universal body of Christ.

This is perhaps the most common understanding of the phrase in our culture. Whether we like it or not, we live in a denominational world. We have Catholics, Baptists, Methodist, Presbyterians and so on. According to this understanding, the “Church of Christ” fits right in this list of denominations. Among those who think of themselves as belonging to one denomination or another, it is natural for them to assume that when we use the phrase “Church of Christ” we are talking about our denomination.

Even many who attend Churches of Christ (i.e. those congregations with the name “Church of Christ”) use the phrase in this way. “Church of Christ” is viewed as the name of our group. We have “Church of Christ” schools, “Church of Christ” preachers, and “Church of Christ” traditions. If you ever hear someone say “I grew up Church of Christ, but then I switched to _______” , they are using the phrase as a denominational title.

Sometimes you will hear Christian scholars or preachers speak of “our heritage”, “our tribe” or “our little corner of the kingdom”. These are ways of describing the “Church of Christ” as one group among many. This is especially common among those who have been highly exposed to the “sectarian” view of the church (see below). This usage confronts the arrogance and closed mindedness of the sectarian view and challenges it with a much needed does of humility to recognize that we are not uniquely smarter or more capable of discerning truth than anyone else.

In a religious environment where denominationalism is the default position for almost everyone, many have given up on using the phrase to describe anything other than another denomination.

The Sectarian Understanding

In my opinion, the best definition of sectarianism was given by David Lipscomb in his 1907 article “A Sectarian and a Truth Seeker”.  (It would be worth your time to read this excellent article here).

A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party does not hold or that will injure the strength and popularity of his party. The partisan takes for granted everything his party holds is right, and everything the other part holds is wrong and to be opposed. Hence the party lines define his faith and teaching. He sees no good in the other party. He sees no wrong in his own party, unless someone in his party should love truth and oppose an error of his party or defend a truth of the other party.

Sectarians understand that biblically speaking, there is only one church, the church of Christ (Eph. 1.22-23; Eph. 4.4). They know and use all the same scriptures about the “church of Christ” as those who use the phrase biblically (see below). Yet despite sounding like those who use the phrase “church of Christ” biblically, their understanding of the church is actually much more closely aligned with the denominational understanding of the church.

Similar to the denominational understanding, sectarians understand the phrase “Church of Christ” to refer to those churches which wear the name “Church of Christ” and associate with one another as a branch of the American Restoration Movement. But rather than thinking of themselves as one denomination of the universal church, they think that their party, the “Church of Christ”, constitutes the entirety of the body of Christ. In their minds, people in other parties cannot possibly be members of the one true church.

This view is not to be confused with the scriptural view. They do share the scriptural concept of “only one church” which was built by and belongs to Christ. But rather than understanding the boundaries of Christ’s church as “those who have been baptized and are faithful to Christ” (Gal. 3.26-27), they identify the church as “those who are faithful to my party”. In other words, they identify the body of Christ as synonymous with the modern day association of churches which wear the name “Church of Christ.”

This view is common among those who have been fed a steady diet of proof texts about the “one church”, but have not studied enough to grasp a distinction between how the phrase “churches of Christ” is used in scripture (Rom. 16.16) and how denominational titles are used in our culture.

A sectarian understanding is often present when:

  • The phrase “Church of Christ” is used as the official name for the church, and as the exclusive phrase used to describe the church
  • Party lines and traditions are more important than scripture (or worse, when adherence to written “statements of faith” are made the test of fellowship rather than adherence to Scripture)
  • Someone who has obeyed the gospel is forced to submit to “rebaptism” if they did not learn the gospel directly from a Church of Christ member
  • Someone refuses to question any traditions, practices, or beliefs of the Church of Christ, even when Scriptural objections are raised

This view is often held by those who recognize the problem of denominationalism, but instead of seeking to destroy denominationalism with unity in Christ, they seek to build up and strengthen their distinct sect.

The Biblical Understanding

I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hades will not overpower it. – Matthew 16.18

Jesus built His church. There is one church (cf .Eph. 1.22-23; Eph. 4.4) which belongs to Christ. This one church is the universal body of Christ which is made up of all those who are saved (Heb. 12.22-24).

Congregations of these believers can rightly be described as “churches of Christ” (Rom. 16.16). However, it should be noted that we could just as rightly refer to the church as the church of God, the body, the kingdom, etc. (1 Cor. 10.32; Eph. 1.22-23; Col. 1.13).

When we use the phrase “church of Christ” in this biblical sense, we are not referring to any sect or denomination you could choose to join.  Biblically speaking, only the Lord can add you to His church, and He does this when you are saved (Acts 2.41, 47). There are no saved people outside His one church (Heb. 12.22-24). Regardless of how many sects or denominations that may come and go throughout the years, there is and always will be only “one body” of Christ (Eph. 4.4).

Ultimately, it is the Lord who knows who is “in” and who is “out” of His church (Heb. 12.23; 2 Tim. 2.19). If we have clothed ourselves with Christ in baptism and give our faithful allegiance to Jesus, we can know that we are numbered among His children (Gal. 3.26-27).

There are still many who strive to use the phrase in the same way it was used in Romans 16.16, to simply refer to a congregation of Christians. There are still those who desire use the phrase to call for nondenominational and nonsectarian Christianity.

The Importance of Speaking Clearly

  • Please remember that not everyone who uses the phrase “church of Christ” to refer to Christ’s one church is a sectarian.

When you hear things like “Christ only established one church, and if you aren’t a part of that church you can’t go to heaven” this is not necessarily sectarianism. It could be, but it depends on what body they have in mind when they speak of the one church. They might simply be upholding a sect, but they could simply be trying to encourage someone to become a Christian. If you aren’t sure what they mean, ask them. Give them a chance to explain themselves more clearly before drawing your conclusion.

  • If you are going to use the phrase “church of Christ” in the biblical sense, make sure you are using the phrase properly.

“Church of Christ” is not the official name of the church. It is not the exclusive (or even the primary) description of the church. When we use it as such, we are encouraging an unbiblical understanding of the church. I am not “Church of Christ”. And I am certainly not a “CofC’er”. I am a Christian.

  • If you are committed to using the phrase “Church of Christ” as a sectarian or denominational title, please don’t give that sect or denomination your loyalty.

It drives me crazy whenever I hear someone refer to the “Church of Christ” as simply “our heritage” or “our tribe” or “our little corner of the kingdom”, and then proceed to express how much they love the Churches of Christ and want to see them succeed. If what we have in mind is a sect or a denomination, why would we give it one ounce of our loyalty? Let the Church of Christ denomination die! Let the Church of Christ sect die! But let Christ’s church live eternally! Let’s give our loyalty to Christ, not to any denomination or sect.

  • If you are going to use the phrase “church of Christ”, please take extra care to make sure your listeners know what you are talking about.

When terms are understood differently by different people it only breeds confusion. If you are going to use the phrase in a denominational or sectarian sense, please make sure others know that you are not using it to refer to the one body of Christ. If you are going to use the phrase to refer to the one universal body of Christ, please make sure others understand that you are not referring to a sect or a denomination.

Our aim is to simply be Christians. We want to be faithful, loyal, disciples of Christ. We want to give our allegiance to Him as part of His one church, without encouraging denominationalism or sectarianism. Let’s not use the name of Christ in vain by misusing His name.

Let’s be careful how we talk about the “church of Christ.”

Final Thoughts (Legalism, Part 14 of 14)

This post concludes a 14 part series in which I have reviewed “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace.”

Summary

  1. Kevin is a truth seeker. He seeks consistency. He isn’t willing to settle for over-simplified or inconsistent answers. He is a man who has the courage to follow what he believes is right, regardless of the pressures he may feel from those around him. (Part 3)
  2. It should be noted that Kevin never openly preached “salvation by works”. His problems primarily arose from struggling with various questions about Christian fellowship. He came to realize that he could never come up with a complete and Biblically consistent list of fellowship-issues necessary for unity without ultimately disfellowshiping anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. Once he realized that such an approach could never give him confidence in his salvation, Kevin was driven to deeper study about God’s grace. (Part 10)
  3. Kevin has taken some big steps in the right direction by rejecting his “cold/ritualistic” approach towards Christianity, and has replaced it with a “relationship/faith based” approach towards Christ. In this regard, Kevin’s book most certainly points in the right direction. (Part 11)
  4. Despite all the spiritual growth Kevin has experienced, he continues to read the New Testament through a lens that pits faith over against works. This is understandable since this has been one of the most traditional ways to read the New Testament for the last few hundred years. But this approach does not do justice to the first century context in which these Scriptures were written. The legalism addressed by Paul did not deal with the question of whether or not Christians could earn their salvation through their own moral efforts. The legalism addressed by Paul wrestled with the questions of who Christians were allowed to eat with, and how to identify who is in the family of God. Kevin thus associates “works of the law” with any generic acts of obedience, any “law system” or any attempt to save ourselves through our own moral efforts, whereas when Paul spoke of “works of the law”, he was describing the specific works of the law the Jewish Christians were using to separate themselves from Gentiles Christians. (Parts 5 and 6)
  5. This basic, but common misunderstanding impacts multiple aspects of his book, such as how he understands the message of the gospel, how he understands the concept of faith, and how he understands grace. (Parts 7, 8, and 9)
  6. Since Kevin misunderstands the scriptures which set faith over against “works of the law”, he puts himself into a tricky position where me must maintain the necessity of obedience, while categorically separating obedience from faith, and consequently separating obedience from that which identifies us as members of the family of God.
  7. As long as we view “faith” and “obedience” as two separate categories held together in a cause and effect relationship, and yet view both of them as absolutely necessary, Christians will recognize “faith alone” as insufficient. Consequently, they will feel the need to achieve “enough obedience” to be saved. The separation of faith and works actually feeds the cold, ritualistic “checklist” approach to Christianity. (Part 12)
  8. If we want to help move the church away from a cold, ritualistic “checklist” religion, and move into deeper, genuine, loving relationship with God, we could start by reading the New Testament in it’s original context. If we will let go of the habit of reading Paul’s writings as confronting “salvation by works”, and instead listen to how the New Testament writers actually understand the gospel, we will recognize that the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as Lord is the very heartbeat of the gospel. As a result, we will recognize that “faith” is much more than simply “trust and reliance”, but rather describes a live of loyal allegiance to Jesus as Lord. If we break the habit of setting faith over against works of obedience, and recover the centrality of Jesus’ Lordship, we will understand that faith and obedience are not two separate categories, but are rather contained within each other.
  9. When we are mindful of Jesus’ Lordship, and when we commit ourselves to be His disciples, genuine love for God and others will become the defining characteristic of our lives. No longer can we deceive ourselves into thinking that we can be “justified by trust and reliance” apart from love. Instead we must realize that faith demands love. (Part 11)
  10. Kevin’s book thus represents a big step in the right direction, yet it unfortunately reinforces some critical misunderstandings of Scripture.

Take Aways

What do I pray the church will take away from this study of legalism?

  1. An appreciation for the way that two Christians can disagree, and talk about those disagreements without name calling, attacking each other’s character, or intentionally misrepresenting each other’s motives or arguments. In Kevin’s book, he spoke very kindly, even about those who he has disagreed with over the years. I pray that my response to Kevin has shown this same graciousness, and I hope this will be an encouragement to other Christians to talk about their differences in a Christ-like manner.
  2. A deeper appreciation of the gospel; specifically speaking, a recognition that Jesus’ Lordship is the heartbeat of the gospel (Rom. 1.1-4)
  3. A recognition that “faith” is more than “trust and reliance”. Faith demands acts of faithfulness and allegiance to Jesus as Lord. Faith cannot be set over against obedience. We must embrace the concept of the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1.5; 16.26).
  4. That as we approach difficult and sensitive questions of Christian fellowship, we will remember that Paul wrote extensively addressing these kind of issues. In his mind, Christian fellowship was to be found among all those who are baptized into Christ and are faithfully loyal to Him. (Part 12)

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3.26-29

  1. A deep resolve to embrace genuine obedient “faithfulness” as the standard of unity and to reject the exaltation of creeds (written or unwritten), “statements of faith”, or other beliefs or practices that might serve as sectarian boundary lines. (Part 13)
  2. A deep appreciation for the core message of the gospel: Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord. Yet with a realization that this “core message” doesn’t reduce other issues to “frivolous issues”. Quite the opposite. If Jesus is Lord, it’s not up to us to decide which matters are “essential” and which ones are “nonessential”. Yes, we can show grace to one another when we disagree in good faith. But if Jesus is Lord, and we have given are faithful allegiance to Him, there are no “frivolous issues.”
  3. A recognition that Christians will not agree on every single doctrinal issue. Christianity is in large part a growth process – and none of us will ever reach moral and intellectual perfection in this lifetime. If Peter and Paul had to work through disagreements, we will too. That doesn’t mean that error is “okay” or should be ignored. But we must remember that Romans 14 shows us that when two Christians are faithfully loyal to Christ, they can disagree on matters of doctrine and still maintain fellowship.
  4. A remembrance that “faithfulness” does not mean perfection. We will all sin, but as long as we are walking in the light, we can have confidence that Jesus’ blood will cleanse us of our mistakes (1 John 1.7-8)
  5. A resolve to never endorse error. To say that fellowship is found among all those who are baptized into Christ and are faithfully loyal to Him is not a call for “open fellowship” with anyone and everyone who claims to “believe” in Jesus. As noted, there is a big difference between “trust and reliance” and “faithful allegiance to Jesus as Lord.” If we are going to say that Christian fellowship is founded upon faith in Christ, we must first have a Biblical concept of faith – a faith that gives loyal allegiance to Jesus as Lord.
  6. More than anything, I hope this study will encourage you to love God and others more deeply. This is one thing that I know Kevin and I fully agree on. And this is crucial. If Jesus is Lord, our lives must be characterized by love.

To my readers,

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider these posts. I especially appreciate those of you who have shared words of encouragement or critical feedback as I’ve proceeded through these posts.

Kevin,

If you’ve read this far, I owe you a huge thank you. I’ve never had anybody write a 14 part series to dive into the depths of (and possible misunderstandings in) my own faith. I can’t imagine that’s an easy thing to do. I hope you feel like I’ve treated you fairly. If not, please know that I’ve done my best. I hope that I’ve encouraged you to think deeply and to grow in your own understanding and articulation of your arguments.

You’ve always treated me kindly, even in our disagreements. I’m sure I have misunderstandings too. I just don’t know what they are. Perhaps one day someone will take the time to help me think through them more deeply.

But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcison, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them and upon the Israel of God…

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit, brethren. Amen. – Galatians 6.14-16, 18

Is The Church Too Legalistic? (Legalism, Part 13 of 14)

If you missed the earlier parts of this series, you can go back and read them here:

What Is Legalism?

The word “legalism” is frequently used to describe the error of those who seek to earn their salvation through good works (part 4). While it is certainly true that we cannot be saved by right doctrine and good works alone, independent from faithful loyalty to Christ and love for God, we should recognize that the “legalism” addressed by Paul in Galatians and Romans is a different kind of legalism (parts 5 and 6).

The “legalism” opposed by Paul was the practice of the Jewish Christians who were adding requirements to the gospel and consequently compromising the sufficiency of the cross. This “legalism” was the charge laid against Gentile Christians that their faithful loyalty to Christ was insufficient, and that they must also be circumcised and keep the “works of the law” to be welcomed into Abraham’s family.

Everything in Paul’s letter to the Galatians leads up to Galatians 5.1:

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.

Rather than seeking unity in Christ, the Jewish Christians were seeking to define the boundaries of fellowship by their particular sectarian identity markers. But Christ has set us free from the “works of the law”.

The legalism addressed by Paul was the legalism of adding sectarian requirements to scripture, and by implication, claiming that faithful obedience to Christ is insufficient for full Christian fellowship.

Brothers and sisters, Christ has set us free! Do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery!

Is legalism a problem in the church today?

I’m in no position to give an adequate answer to this question. Since the church has no earthly headquarters, I can’t simply call them up and ask them for their official stance on questions of Christian fellowship. So I can’t give an official answer to this question.

We can have an official answer from God about what legalism is and isn’t, or what faith is or isn’t. But there’s no way that I could give an adequate answer to this question in a way that would accurately and fairly represent every Christian and every congregation in the universal body of Christ.

Instead of seeking an official judgment on whether or not the church is too legalistic, I would encourage you to think about the congregation where you attend. Or even more importantly, think about your own views of Christian fellowship. Is your congregation too legalistic? Are you too legalistic?

Do you view faithful obedience to Jesus as Lord as sufficient, or do you add your own additional requirements to make sure that someone fits into your sect? What might those things be? In Paul’s day it was the “works of the law”, such as circumcision, not eating pork, and keeping the Sabbath.  In our own day it might be requiring someone to accept your denomination’s unique set of creeds (written or unwritten). It might be “statements of faith” that we require everyone in our congregation to adhere to, so as to make sure that every Christian conforms to our party’s standards. It might be the exaltation of particular believes and practices that set your group of Christians apart from other groups. It might be additional laws, rules, regulations, experiences, or particular political loyalties.

What’s wrong with creeds, statements of faith, or the exaltation of beliefs and practices we think of as extra important? If our “statements of faith” require anything less than “faithfulness to Christ” would require, they don’t require enough. If our “statements of faith” require more than “faithfulness to Christ” requires, they require too much. If our “statements of faith” require all the exact same things that “faithfulness to Christ” requires, they are redundant and unnecessary.

Do we stick to the gospel? Do we encourage faithful obedience to Christ? Do we uphold the requirements of scripture? Or do we require more? If we are faithful to Christ, even the “smallest issues” will matter, but only because Jesus is Lord, and not because we are trying to uphold the strength of our particular party of believers.

In addressing the legalism in the churches in Galatia, Paul wrote:

 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. – Galatians 3.26-27

Read that scripture slowly. Can you say “amen?” Even when you read that word “all”? Do you really believe what Paul said? Do you really believe we are all sons of God through faith? Do you really believe that all of us who have been baptized have been put into Christ? Or do you feel drawn to defend your particular party of Christians by drawing additional lines of fellowship?

If we really believe the words of Paul, what he says next should come naturally:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ you are Abraham’s descendants, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3.28-29

Don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t an argument for ecumenical fellowship with anyone and everyone who claims to have “trust and reliance” in Jesus. We must understand what Paul had in mind when he spoke of “faith” (part 8). We must remember that for Paul, being baptized into Christ was essential (Gal. 3.27). But, if we love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, and mind, if we have given our faithful and obedient allegiance to Jesus as Lord in everything we do, and if we have been baptized into Christ, nothing should separate us from one another. If we belong to Christ, we are part of Abraham’s family. Period. We must never hesitate when we read the word “all.”

Do you emphasize loyalty to Christ? Or do you emphasize party loyalty? Do you emphasize the inspired words of Scripture? Or do you emphasize traditions and outward performance?

Do you identify the church by asking “who does everything exactly like I do?” Or do you identify the church be asking, “who has been baptized into Christ and is living with faithful loyalty to Christ?”

Do you judge others when they have different opinions than you do? Do you feel bitter contempt towards Christians when you see others upholding different opinions that you do? Why?  Yes, we must use judgment. Yes, we must be discerning, but it is not our job to be the judge! (Rom. 14.1-13)

Do you feel compelled to go beyond scripture in order to protect scripture? Yes, sometimes it can be wise and helpful to “draw lines” in order to keep us from sinning, especially in those areas where the “line” may not be as clear as we wish. For example, I make it a rule for myself not to go to bars. I don’t watch rated R movies. Drawing lines is good and wise. But are we simply drawing lines? Or are we making additional laws by which we judge others when they draw the line in a different place? Are we content to act as if Scripture is sufficient, and God doesn’t need us to make new laws? (cf.  James 4.11-12)

Do we think that simply obeying the “steps of salvation” is a sufficient substitute for giving our lives wholly to God? Do we think that simply going to the right church is a sufficient substitute for loving God with all of our heart? Do we think that simply “trusting and relying” on “core gospel truths” is a sufficient substitute for faithfulness to Christ?

Is the church too legalistic? God is the judge. This is not my call (or your call) to make. But we would be wise to examine ourselves.

Continue reading here:

Final Thoughts (Legalism, Part 14 of 14)

Back to the Questions (Legalism, Part 12 of 14)

If you missed the earlier parts of this series, you can go back and read them here:

In part 10 I summarized a long list of important and relevant questions raised by Kevin Pendergrass in his book “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace”. Most of his questions revolve around issues of fellowship, how to distinguish “fellowship issues” from issues we can “agree to disagree” about, and how these questions impact our confidence in our salvation. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend reading that post first.

As we consider these questions, we must remember that if our understanding of faith is not shaped and informed by our loyal allegiance to Jesus as Lord, we’re not talking about biblical faith (for more, go back and read parts 5-8). We cannot separate faith from acts of faithfulness. We cannot separate faith and works. We cannot separate faith and love (part 11). We must recognize that while grace is certainly undeserved, it is not unconditional. Grace is conditioned upon our faithful allegiance to Jesus as Lord (part 9, cf. Gal. 3.27-28; Eph. 2.8).

Most of us have worshiped with the following lyrics many times:

Love so amazing so Divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

This song gets it right.

With our minds fixed on Jesus’ Lordship, and the importance of living in faithful allegiance to Him, how then should we approach Kevin’s questions? How can we know if we are being obedient enough? How do we decide when to break fellowship with Christians for not being obedient enough? How do we decide when we should break fellowship, and when it would be okay to just agree to disagree? In summary, how much faithfulness is required to be justified, and thus numbered among the people of God?

In response to these questions, I wish to raise another question. Why do we feel like we must develop a set of hard and fast rules by which we can measure sufficient faithfulness and obedience? Such an approach is certain to lead to such endless questions and inconsistencies as Kevin’s book has wonderfully illustrated! And because of our potential for ignorant, unrecognized mistakes, such an approach is certain to lead to a lack of confidence! In fact, the “rule making” approach is precisely what Paul addressed in the books of Galatians and Romans. Jewish Christians (and even Peter himself!) were guilty of requiring the gentile Christians to live up to their own “checklist” of rules, and Paul was ready to call them out for it! (See posts 5-6).

How Separating Faith From Obedience Leads to the “Checklist” Approach

So where does this “checklist” mentality come from? I would suggest that it comes as a result of teaching that faith can be understood as simply “trust and reliance”.

When we think of “faith” as “trust and reliance” yet separate from “works”, we will ultimately end up in one of three categories of thought.

  1.  We are saved by “faith only” (i.e. trust and reliance only) apart from obedience. If faith is viewed as categorically separate from obedience, and since we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (understood to mean we are justified by faith apart from obedience), all that is necessary for salvation is trust and reliance in Jesus.
  2. We are saved by “faith plus obedience” as two separate, but equally important steps. Since it is easy to see from scripture that obedience is required, and we will be judged on the basis of things we do and don’t do (cf. Rom 2.5-8; 2 Cor. 5.10; Eph. 5.5; Gal. 5.19-21, 6.8, etc.), “faith only” is recognized as insufficient. Yet if obedience is equally important, this opens up the questions of “how much obedience is required for salvation?”, leading to a “checklist” approach to Christianity. (This is the position Kevin describes himself as having in his younger days).
  3. A hybrid of “faith only” and “faith plus obedience” where we attempt to maintain that obedience is necessary, but is not tied to our justification the way faith is. This position requires long and confusing explanations which attempt to hold “faith” and “obedience” together in a cause and effect relationship, so as to argue that obedience is not necessary for salvation or fellowship, but is still necessary (the position argued for in Kevin’s book).

Yet those who hold the third position, still must come face to face with the fellowship question, where they must align themselves with one of the first two positions. Either, we must fellowship everyone with “trust and reliance” without requiring any obedience, or we must require at least some obedience. If we require obedience, we must be able to articulate “how much” obedience. Ultimately, those in the third category must argue for  either “faith only” fellowship or a “checklist approach” to fellowship, depending on how essential they view obedience.

It is the separation of “faith” and “obedience” that leads to both “faith only” and the “checklist” mentality. Both mistakes result from the same basic misunderstanding of the gospel.

A Better Question to Ask

Rather than asking “how much faithfulness is required?” it would be better to ask “what kind of faithfulness is required?” Faithful obedience to Jesus as Lord requires firm allegiance to Him and actions which correspond with that loyalty. To develop a hard list to quantify and describe how much faithfulness is necessary for me or you is not only impossible, it shows that we fundamentally misunderstand the concept of faith all together.

Faithfulness must never be reduced to a list of do’s and don’ts. The desire to approach questions of Christian fellowship in this way is evidence of one of two problems:

  • A failure to know and to love God and others with all of our heart
  • A “what is the most I can get away with” attitude

Once we understand “Jesus’s Lordship” as the heartbeat of the gospel, and once we understand that loving faithful allegiance to Him as Lord is our response to the gospel, suddenly the need for a hard and fast list of fellowship issues disappears.

Faithfulness depends on doing whatever Lord Jesus commands us to do, and we will be judged based on whether or not we were faithfully loyal to Him. Instead of asking “how many things must I get right”, our attitude becomes “I want to do everything I can possibly do to please my Lord.” If we live with loyalty to Him, with a determination that extends beyond shallow lip service, then we can rest assured that His death on our behalf will be sufficient to cover our sins – all our sins – even our ignorant sins.

That’s what Paul meant when he said we are “justified by faith” (Gal. 2.16). That’s why John could write:

If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. – 1 John 1.7

And lest you think that “faithfulness” or “walking in the light” means perfection, John makes it very clear that “walking in the light” does not mean sinlessness. In the very next verse he says:

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. – 1 John 1.8

That also explains why Paul could write to Christians disagreeing on doctrinal issues and say things like:

One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. – Romans 15.5-6

Paul did not believe that two contradictory opinions were equally valid, and he didn’t endorse the incorrect opinions of those whom he thought were wrong. But he recognized that since both Christians were living in faithful, obedient, loyalty to God, they were to be considered brothers.

Fellowship Issues

Does this mean that there’s no such thing as “fellowship issues”? Certainly not. Scripture gives us several broad and detailed lists of what sort of activities our loyalty to Him forbids. For examples, Galatians 5.19-21 reads:

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

While we recognize God’s desire to show mercy to all (Rom. 11.32; 1 Tim. 2.4), we can only conclude from such a scripture that those who persist in these types of activities will ultimately be condemned. Even seemingly “small issues”, if we know better, and yet we persist in them, can call into question whether or not we are faithfully loyal to Jesus as Lord (Rom. 14.23).

Faithfulness is not the same thing as perfection. Faithfulness is not the same thing as simply “getting the important issues right”. But faithfulness certainly requires that we live our lives in faithful allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments – 1 John 2.3

Do not love the world nor the things in the world… but the one who does the will of God lives forever. – 1 John 2.15, 17

“We know that we have passed out of death into live, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.” – 1 John 3.14

Kevin’s book represents a step in the right direction. He has skillfully exposed the foolishness of approaching Christianity as a cold and fast list of things to get right. He is right recognizing that the answer is found in loving God. Yet, if he would go just a little bit further, and recognize how our obedience and love is actually wrapped up within our faithful response to Jesus as Lord, he would be able to cut down the “cold ritualism” of his past at the very root of the misunderstanding.

Continue reading here:

Is The Church Too Legalistic? (Legalism, Part 13 of 14)