The Bound Gospel: Reflections on Grace and Fellowship in Churches of Christ
Bruce Edwards, Jr.
In past months, many brethren have been speaking about a something they call a "unity in diversity faction" or "the grace-fellowship heresy." It is easy to fall into the tendency of relying on stereotypes and catchphrases to convey one's meaning and ultimately do one's thinking for him. I dislike such sloganeering: mainly, because it hides truth instead of revealing it - it puts the reader or listening audience at the mercy of the peculiar definitions and connotations the writer-speaker places on such phrases. Scriptural argumentation is my preference and has been too little in evidence in recent years among brethren who have written about such things - on either side of the "fence." But such displeases God - it fosters bitterness and worldliness among brethren and is antithetical to our profession of faith. I propose here to look at some current topics in the light of Scripture, hoping to provoke some genuine thinking on these matters as opposed to the blustering and blathering we seem to have become used to. Before getting into anything in particular, I would like to further preface my remarks with a, few statements about my perspective on "the brotherhood" and related matters.
(1) My inclination is to let matters lie and say nothing, either about what I think or what others have said. But I have come to see that someone ought to step out and at least expose the pretensions of power and authority that some brethren have begun to wield among "us." The quotation marks around the word us in that last sentence say a lot about what I think is one of the main problems I witness among churches of Christ: the problem of identity. Individual Christians and individual congregations seem to be unsure about what they are and what their function is. Long ago, F.D. Srygley posed the question, "Who are we, 'as a people'?" His writings, collected in that remarkable, exciting book, The New Testament Church, are as relevant today as when he first wrote them as an editor of the Gospel Advocate at the turn of the century. Srygley well knew the problem of facing denominationalism both in the world and among his brethren, the problem of getting even professedly undenominational people to see the implications of their stand.
How are individual Christians bound together in a local church? Where are the bounds of fellowship exercised and when is fellowship to be withheld? What is the relationship between separate autonomous congregations, and, what can be the relationships between the Lord's churches and the human institutions that grow up around them first as service organizations and later as served organizations? I cannot pretend that I will deal with these questions that have troubled brethren for decade:. in some extraordinary way that will settle all controversy; in fact, I may simply stir up some more. But something needs to be said and since I do not see anyone else trying, I feel obliged to at least try.
(2) 1 have begun to see that although "we" have championed local autonomy for a long time and fought against the influence of purely human institutions over brethren, in fact, it has tended to be lip service. Some editors, some preachers and some congregations have begun to show their true colors: what they have really wanted is a tightly controlled, stand-at-attention-when-I-speak "brotherhood," a network of Church of Christ franchises patterned, not especially after the New Testament pattern, but after their own. Whenever a local preacher in one state, who is also an employee and editor for a human institution, calls for the "brotherhood disfellowshipping" of another preacher in another state, then something needs to be said. Such brethren ought to be more honest with themselves and with their brethren as to what they are really asking for.
Things will not stop here; other "undenominational" fellowships in history have succumbed to the same human frailty: the desire for a king. A creedalism that was formerly unofficial and unarticulated is now becoming more and more explicit - day by day various editors are drawing up the peculiar list of doctrines that will constitute what "faithfulness" is to mean. The "brotherhood" idea - as illegitimate and anti-Scriptural as any concept that has come down the road in the past fifty years - is the root of all such denominational leanings. An unacknowledged framework of local churches, editors-at-large, publications, foundations and colleges exists now and is taking upon itself all the "marks" of the formal denominational structures "we" have previously opposed. Isn't it time to tell the emperor that he doesn't have any clothes on?
(3) One more digression: I fully realize how pretentious it may seem for me to be saying anything at all; I ask for your good will and patience in reading through this material. The readers may judge whether it coincides with the "sound words" of the apostles, knowing that he faces God, not me in judgment, and conversely that I too face Him, not the reader or reviewer. What men per se may think of me or this article is unimportant - what counts is what God thinks and I am happy to commit myself to His infallibly just and merciful review.
"Any 'old path' that isn't as old as Jesus and the apostles isn't old enough."
Yes, that is exactly how I feel about any teaching which comes my way. Just because something is trumpeted as being "in the old paths" or is alleged to be "what sound brethren believe" or any other of the convenient slogans that have been coined over the years . . . is of no particular importance to me. Brethren have for too long been used to such catch phrases; it is too comfortable and too dangerous to judge whether something is true on the basis of its popularity or its endurance. If something is true now or in the 19th century, it is only because Jesus or His men taught it in the 1st century. Yet one brother told me he did not have to deal with any of my arguments - all he had to do was label them or associate them with some particular "ism" that was abroad. Thus, we come to a person's basis of truth and for me, that is simple: the revealed, inspired, infallible, authoritative word of God - what we call the Bible.
My outlook is formed and fashioned by that word, which had its ultimate manifestation in a Person: "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father) full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14). Since I live under the new, not old, covenant I turn to the words of the apostles and their witness for my guidance. And it is that witness to the coming of the Savior, His mission and current Lordship which connect me, by faith, to His saving grace: "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us; yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ: and these things we write that our joy may be made full" (1 John 1:3, 4). Thus, whatever I know about this Savior Jesus must come from His apostles and other inspired companions which He directed for later generations. If one closes the door to this testimony, ,he has access to no other reliable source for truth - and sentences himself to walk in darkness.
But "that sounds good," you say. How does that work out practically? We all know it is well and good to claim to follow the apostolic witness alone, but an entirely different matter to actually do it. Quite right. And my answer to that is also simple: As one made in His image, I must bring to the Scriptures all the reason, intelligence, faith and will to obey that I can muster in order to understand, incorporate and obey the will of God in my life. Jesus said that His words are "Spirit and are life" (John 6:63). He promised everyone who will ask, knock and seek that they will be answered (Matt. 7:7, 8). Thus, I come to the written word with the confidence that with a heart of faith and the desire to know truly His will, I will not be turned away empty handed: "If any man willeth to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from myself" (Jn. 7:17). The promise of the Scriptures is that I can honestly know and please God through an understanding and an obedience to what I find His will to be in the word He has given us. Such matters would include any commands, examples or inferences I discern in the word from my personal study of it.
But what is the possible application of these conclusions to current problems and dilemmas? I can only speak for myself, answering on the basis of my understanding of the word. Some have offered to read my heart and declare my motives despite Jesus' warning against it (Matt. 7:1-5); yet only One knows the heart of a man and any attempt to intimate ulterior motives and thus judge the soul of a brother is an affront to the Holy Judge who will take such matters into account.
Issues of late have been made to revolve around "fellowship." The real question, however, the one that must be settled before "fellowship" can even be approached is this: How are men saved? And how do they stay saved? Then, and only then, after these questions are resolved can "fellowship" become relevant. I have no decision to make with regard to fellowship with X, if I have first not determined the basis of salvation of God's pattern. That pattern is really quite simple on examination: all those found "in Christ" will be saved. Whatever being "in Christ" means - that is the condition for salvation. It will make little difference whether you or I see issue A alike if one or both of us is not "in Christ." Otherwise, we have nothing to share in. Just here, let me digress a bit and consider some common thinking on the matter.
One of "our" favorite passages is Acts 2 - and rightly so. It is indeed the "hub of the Bible," the center and focal point of all that precedes it or comes after. When "men and brethren" cry out in Acts 2:37 we know clearly why they are crying out - they have been convinced of their utter sinfulness before God, they have slain the righteous one, The King - and they are desperately looking for a way out of their predicament. Every responsible person shares their predicament, "For all have sinned and continually fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Can we not see that we are all in that Pentecost assembly? We too have killed the Lord of Glory just as assuredly as if we had been in that mob calling His blood down on us. Our sins put Him on that cross. The "solution" to our problem is the same as theirs, "repent and be baptized . . . ."
But is there a problem here? Have we not often taken that passage for granted. Taken it as a glib prooftext for some peculiar distinctiveness about "our church" and missed the profound depth that is there? Yes, I am convinced it is so. And it is so because there is a great difference between that 1st century throng and us: the desperation, the cognizance of sin, the sense of being lost, the urgent, veritable need for a sinbearer, for Jesus that was characteristic of those "men and brethren" I find generally absent from "our" preaching and writing. And with good reason. Because I believe we have taken a gospel which is simple and made it simplistic.
Another way of saying it is this: we have bound the gospel; we have taken the heart of "good news" out of it and laid it along the Old Covenant as merely, merely another law to keep. We have turned good news into bad. We have progressively cheapened the meaning of His death and resurrection. By packaging the gospel in convenient steps, ostensibly as a "shorthand" for the ignorant in the denominational world, we have ironically offered our hearers the benefits of salvation without their coming to grips with the depth of their sin and alienation from God. Unless the gospel we set forth centers around the risen Savior who lived the perfect life we could not live, to be the perfect sacrifice we cannot give as opposed to the incessant muzak of what we all can do to get forgiveness as if we could earn, merit or achieve it on our own - we will be planting seed and raising crops that God the Father has no interest in. I am not talking about the response that the believer must make to appropriate forgiveness, but the actual cause, the underlying basis for our salvation. It is clear in Peter's words and that of everyone else in the New Testament Scriptures that the emphasis in salvation and its basis is wholly upon Who Jesus is and What He has done (cf. 1 Cor. 1:25-31; Rom. 8:1-8; Tit. 3:3-8).
At one time I know that I personally had a legalistic conception of salvation - that in some way I was saved because of what I had done, that salvation was based upon my abilities, my performance, my own personal merit before God. I saw my works, not as the response of faith (James 2:14ff.) but as the essential cause and activator of my fellowship with God. My discipleship was self-not Jesus-centered. Jesus, the Savior, mattered little per se in my life; I did not obey for His sake - I obeyed for me. What counted was not that I loved and followed Him, but that I achieved all the "right positions" in some abstract system of law. I was nor coming to His sacrifice to appropriate its blessings; I was trying to fashion a crude one of my own. As I said earlier I speak for myself; maybe no other brother has ever grappled with these things the way I have. If so, may such praise God. But I would be surprised to discover such to be true.
I believe there is a pernicious, hidden assumption in much of the talk and teaching one gets from preachers, writers, Bible class teachers, et al. It is this: that somehow those who have come to agree upon certain convictions regarding Biblical inferences have a kind of bargaining position with God that others, who perhaps have not yet come to the same convictions, do not. In other words, there sees to be the presumption that because we (we "conservatives," we "anti-Grace-fellowship-heresy" brethren, we-this, we-that) have arrived at some particular convictions we are in a position to be more "righteous" than someone who has not and, thus, we are entitled to write off, ostracize and otherwise consign to hell those who have not "achieved" our level of correctness. Instead of our salvation being rooted in Jesus, the center has subtly and subtilely been shifted to us and our ability to come to all the right positions on the multiudinous issues that confront 20th century Christians.
Now let me point out something here about this assumption: this emphasis on being "right" is fine and dandy - if it is perceived as the honest, loving response of a person who knows Jesus paid the price, that He bought us and that we ought to do all we can to please Him and reflect His glory (2 Cor. 3:16, 17; Lk. 17:10; Phil. 3:12-21). On the other hand, if this emphasis on "being right" is being set forth as the basis of salvation, as if to say we are saved when acid only when we have all the right positions - there ensues a difficulty; at least as I see it. If this assumption is so, then it establishes the impossible situation of trying to be saved by being 100% right in every attitude and practice (no other percentage would do) and which no one (no one) has ever achieved or ever will - it sets up the very legal situation Jesus nailed to the cross, which Paul called a curse, which Peter said was a burden none of the "fathers" could bear, which all of us confess to be beyond our reach, no matter how holy or righteous we may conceive-ourselves to be.
But, of course, no one says we must be perfect. Yes, that is true, no one would say such a preposterous thing! But that has not stopped some of us from trying to live our lives as if it were true, or encouraging us to find ingenious ways to get around the predicament (as did the Pharisees). Discipleship would then, and for many already has, disintegrate(d) into the lifelong struggle for just enough right positions - to be saved - or at least to stay ahead of the brethren who may not yet have seen the pattern In the completeness that we do. But I am now hearing that God never has demanded perfection from men and that this is some kind of Calvinistic trick or deception that we have unwittingly accepted. But it was no "Calvinist" who cast Adam and Eve out of the garden or who left the unfaithful Israelites to die in the wilderness or who struck Ananias and Sapphira dead or who calls a church unto Himself that is to be holy and without blemish before Him in love. Have we gotten to a point where we must lecture our own brethren on the holy and righteous attributes of God?
My question is this: if salvation is predicated on such a basis, on our ability to get the correct positions on all possible issues, then who will be saved? We may go through life hoping, guessing that we might saved, might have everything out - but I ask in all sincerity, is this the joyous confidence of salvation that is reflected in the lives of New Testament Christians or of the apostle Paul who said, "I know Him whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which is committed to Him against that day" (2 Tim. 1:12)? Are these words by Paul the subtle claim that he had lived a perfect life? That his practice was perfect? That such was the basis of his confidence in salvation? Anyone who has read Philippians 3 knows the answer to that:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:7-I 1).
The upshot of all this is simple to me: trying to base our hope of salvation on any other foundation than the blood of Jesus is futile (1 Cor. 3:11). We cannot be saved by being "right" because ultimately we cannot be "right" enough; we will fall short. We will sin. It is a dead end. But of course that has not stopped many from trying to find a way around this predicament.
The most common way is to set up some peculiar categories, say, the "work and worship of the church" and claim that this, this above all is the key to faithfulness, the one "identifying mark" that is crucial to salvation and then such are labelled as "too clear for any `honest heart' to miss." But even getting straight on these matters (and let us not under estimate their importance in a God-pleasing life style) will not provide me with the basis I need for fellowship with God. For after I get lined up on these, there are yet countless other matters about God and His ways that I must learn and practice, more issues than I will ever be able to master in one or a dozen lifetimes. I will fall short in perfect practice and understanding - is there anyone who will deny this? But what then can be the basis? Is there no condition?
The Biblical answer is clear: "By this gospel you are saved (note present tense, ble), if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you" (1 Cor. 15:2). Salvation is an on-going process; it does not end at baptism; it is a "walk." While knowing that I will fall short of perfect understanding and practice, I am still bound, by love, by grace, (remember Lk. 17:10) to "do all that it is my duty to do," to hold firmly to what the apostles teach to the best of my ability. My faith-response is to try diligently to understand and obey all that I find in His word - whether command, example or inference - and exhort others to do the same. My "holding firm to the word" involves this lifelong walk with the Lord (Eph. 4:1-5; 17-32; 5:1-6: 18) which demands my attention to obedience, while trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus to cover my sins (1 Jn. 1:8-2:6), confessing all known sins and asking God to forgive those as yet undiscerned by a faithful heart striving to please Him.
This kind of "condition" is a little bit different than the kind usually championed in churches of Christ, where in fact much of the emphasis is on certain "key" issues - issues which preachers, editors, elders and other leaders are able to "keep track of" in terms of party platforms and unwritten creeds. But the "righteousness that is by faith" does not lend itself to the kind of categorizing, labeling and sloganeering that the carnal "conditions" by which men "judge themselves by themselves" do (2 Cor. 10:12). And when the worldly brethren have their power to judge removed (Matt. 7:1-6), they tend to become sullen, provoked and frustrated - which in turn leads them to create factions, sects and, yes, denominations which rally around their positions and interpretations and ostracizing those who dare to dissent.
Can the believer not apostatize then? Can he fall away? Again, the Bible is clear: yes he can. One may turn his back on the Savior, refuse to trust in His sacrifice, refuse to follow Him, refuse to obey Him - to do as Demas did, going back into the world (2 Tim. 4:9). But then is ignorance not bliss? By no means! Such a straw man ought to be put to death once and for all. The disciple of Christ who insists on pleasing God is not satisfied with his ignorance - he wants to go on learning more and obeying more to please His Father in heaven. He seeks not some vague unresponsible state where is he free from further growth or knowledge; his goal is not to know as little as possible and thus be less responsible. Instead, he wants to be as "response-able" as possible to the love and great redemption found in Christ Jesus. We must come to grips with the sober realization that we cannot know it all - ignorance is inevitable - and certainly that we will not be sinless by our own performance. But that realization is hard to take, especially if we have always been "in the right church" with the atmosphere thick with the pollution of human merit mixed with an exalted view of one's ability to reason and practice on some perfect level.
To place some honest brother or sister who misunderstands at this point (according to my fallible judgment) some point of Scripture in the same category as a willfully disobedient rebel is to suggest absurdity. If there are occasions in your life where you have been honestly mistaken, you know then that not all people who fail to see your point are wicked reprobates. Yet that is the stereotype we have come to live with. Instead of the broad brotherhood generalizations and dictums we have been using for a standard, why don't we start now to be what Scripture authorizes us to be: local Christians who work and worship in local churches. Those are the only "functioning units" that the Lord has ordained: the individual Christian and the local church and we have claimed to believe that. Claimed, but not practiced.
What then does this boil down to? To this: the province of salvation is totally in God's hands - He alone knows the works and hearts of men, those with the true heart of faith (2 Tim. 2:19). Our "part" in this plan is to grapple honestly with the Scriptures and to live humbly and faithfully by what we see taught there. I must abide by what the Scriptures say to me, all the while urging others I consider to be "in Christ" to remain faithful to Him and do the same. When all is said and done that is all I can do. I do not understand the Lord to be saying to me that I must fashion little duplicates of Bruce Edwards out of the converts and brethren I confront. In my fellowship, as an individual Christian and in a local church, I must come to grips with my imperfect knowledge. I must remain true to what I believe is authorized by God, realizing the possibility (probability, perhaps) of being mistaken in some areas. If Scripture demanded that we have fellowship only with those with whom we have 100% agreement (or, "on the really crucial issues" - and whose list is the same here?), then I ask, whom would we fellowships? If every act of fellowship constitutes an endorsement of a fellow's whole belief system who would dare fellowship anyone else? Isn't it clear that "endorsement" can be applied only in and for the specific activity in which two\Christians are engaged? Thus, (1) 1 cannot practice with another anything I believe to be wrong in itself and (2) 1 cannot practice anything which night allow another to stumble through weak scruples (Rom. 14:1-23).
What I do for the Lord, I must do out of loyalty to Him, not some institution, party, local church, eldership, preacher, editor or anyone else. He directs me. I listen for His voice. If it leads me in conflict with others, I must yet bear Him alone. I must seek His will, practice is to the best of my ability and trust in the Lord Jesus for salvation. I do not have to determine who is going to be saved in order to live a righteous life.
It is time to cease trusting in the "horses and chariots," the slogans ad cliches of the "brotherhood" and begin trusting in Jesus. The labels and categories that men create have little bearing on eternity. It is my prayer that God would bring us all unto Himself and that we would determine to rest in Him and His power and glory ever more.
"Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest..." (Matt. 11:28).
Truth Magazine XXIII: 26, pp. 422-424