Defining Authority Part 1: "But We Believe"
Defining Authority Part I
But We Believe
“That’s not what the Church of Christ Believes”
I don’t remember where I was the first time I heard the sentiment. I just remember that it created an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t a visceral knee jerk; rather it was more akin to the slow spreading ripples created by a pebble as it breaks the surface of a still pond. As the radius spread and others began to agree I remember that the uneasy feeling grew until it formed a single question. "Why weren’t we talking about the Bible?"
One of the sad outcomes of the era of the institutional debates is a growing tendency to define ourselves not by what scripture says, but instead with labels that appear nowhere in the New Testament. We do this in part because it’s a convenient way to discuss the differences between congregations that hold to biblical authority, and those that are becoming more permissive and less defined by limitations in scripture, but it has had unintended consequences. The fear of being labeled as more liberal or too conservative, has led to a kind of silent creed among the brethren. A creed not defined on paper but on the hearts of men. It has its own codified language and thought. Through it, we view other believers with more scrutiny regarding the congregation they worship with rather than what they profess to believe.
The divide has become so great that there are, in many ways, denominations within the church of Christ. No I’m not about to propose some great compromise that would weaken biblical authority, but only that we judge the actions of baptized believers according to the biblical model.
You see, all of this has led to some strange ways of thinking. Namely a “just to be sure” model of thinking, and it affects everything from baptisms and elder selection, to the clothes we wear to worship service.
It goes something like this: “They came out of a liberal work so they should come forward and confess just to be sure.” Or sometimes like this: “They believe that they were being baptized for the remission of sins, but they should have it done again in the church of Christ just to be sure.” Sometimes, it’s in the way we warn about spiritual growth. If someone is engaging in behaviors that our conscience does not allow, we immediately jump to teaching that it is a sin “just to be sure.”
In Matthew 23 Jesus levels a particularly strong rebuke against the Pharisees.
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying:“ The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.
(Matthew 23:1-4 NASB)
I would encourage opening to the passage and reading through verse 12, but you probably get the gist of what He’s saying. The idea of binding a heavy burden on others comes not from scriptural authority, but from pride. Sadly, it is most often the burden that we have no real struggle with that we try and make heavier and more cumbersome for others.
In many cases, what it really comes down to is not whether or not the people worshipping around us are right with God, but whether they are right with us. We want to be comfortable in their salvation because it provides for us a perverted sense of security.
Still what’s the harm in labeling something that we have a personal feeling about as a sin? The harm is actually quite evident. We help no one when we make the narrow way narrower. We do not help others put their trust in God, but rather in man, and his ability to discern righteousness.
The harm is that when we bind a burden to others that we cannot define by chapter and verse, we go beyond the authority of the scripture; in that we say that we do not trust God to clearly define His intentions. Even passages like Galatians 5:21, that clearly indicate that the Apostle did not exhaust a list of the works of the flesh, give us enough information to define sin as God does. These passages are not given as license to become more restrictive.
The harm is that the focus is always outward and therefore the judgment is never righteous because it does not first judge itself. In binding these burdens we are rarely if ever honest about our motives and reasons. Securing our comfort in the salvation of another is not the same as helping them fully know that they are in and of Christ. We cannot and must not expect them to live out our convictions for the sake of appeasement. This is the very essence of denominationalism, and the furthest thing from true discipleship.
The harm is that we make ourselves both a judge of the law (James 4:11-12) and of a servant of another (Romans 14:3-4). In this we hide our own weakness when it comes to the things of the flesh.
The harm is that we become injurious to our brethren and unfocused on our own spiritual well being. It is the obligation of each to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. I do not help anyone when I demand that they conform to my sacrifice.
I wish we could convince all of our brothers and sisters in Christ to become more like the Master. But “just to be sure (or safe)” isn’t the answer. Let us instead help each other grow in the faith through daily unity and encourage our brethren to walk more closely with Him by knowing Him through His word.
Look for Part II Later this week "The Thief Cannot Save You"