Christianity In A Changing World
By Guy N. Woods
Reprinted from Abilene Christian College Bible Lectures, 1983
I am humbled by a consciousness of responsibility that is mine in presuming to speak to this vast audience on a subject of such vital importance as that which has been assigned me. The conquest of the world to Christ is the most romantic story in human history. Among the sublime and heart-stirring deeds of the past, this one record of priceless value outshines and excels all others. In its thrilling recital of glorious deeds of indomitable courage and unwavering heroism, it is without parallel in the annals of men.
The story is all the more remarkable if we take into consideration the obstacles, and difficulties, which from the beginning, confronted its standard-bearers in their conquest of the earth. First, the men whom the Lord chose to bear His claims before the world were not possessed of those attributes and characteristics the world usually considers essential to success. With one or two exceptions, the apostles were not men of letters, nor were they possessed of literary attainments; on the contrary, they were illiterate and unlearned, living and moving on a plane far below that of the average citizen of the Roman world. The Roman citizen of that day was the proudest man that ever walked upon the earth. He looked with supercilious disdain on all other races, and the Jews were by him relegated to the lowest realm, viewed only with disgust and contempt. When therefore a group of this despised race, fleeing persecution in their own land, came preaching a new gospel, there was not one human chance in a thousand they would succeed.
The second obstacle was in the nature of the gospel itself. It purported to offer salvation from a doom of which the Roman, enslaved by paganism, was wholly unconscious; what knew he, or cared, for a hell of fire, in the distant future, which in his materialism, he never expected to see? More, it required the acceptance of a low born Jew, without earthly father, and who had been executed as a condemned criminal in one of the far flung dominions of the empire as the Savior and Redeemer of the world. Nor did it stop here. It made obligatory the whole hearted acceptance of Him as their Priest and King, demanding an allegiance more solemn and binding than ever that which they delighted to render to Caesar. One cannot easily conceive of a combination of circumstances which would render the cause the apostles pled more abhorrent to the average Roman citizen.
Thirdly, the gospel was wholly opposed, in its spirit and genius, to the Roman psychology. It required a total abstinence from the vices then so prevalent in society. It would not tolerate pride, and pride and arrogance were ever present in the Roman character. It struck at the roots of sin, and the Roman loved the fleshpots of physical enjoyment. Despite these handicaps, in less than fifty years after Jesus died on Calvary's brow, there was a congregation of believers in every principal city of the Roman empire. In less than 250 years more than half of the vast empire had bowed in humble submission to the divine will.
How shall we account for this remarkable transformation? Was it because Jesus was a great teacher? So were hundreds of others who have lived and labored, but have long since passed into oblivion and forgetfulness, and whose works lie buried in dusty tomes no longer read or known by the world today. Was it because their Captain and King was a mighty leader? So were Augustus Caesar, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and a host of others whose deeds and achievements brought the world to their feet, only to turn from them to others with equal claims on their homage. Does the explanation lie in the fact that He was a wise philosopher? So, too, were Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. But their works have yielded to the mutations of time, and the world moves on, little knowing or caring for their achievements in the distant past. No, the Nazarene's claim to greatness does not lie in the fact that He was a great teacher, a mighty leader, or a wise philosopher. Though He were all of these and more, He, too, would be sleeping the sleep of the forgotten, were it not for the glorious fact that He came forth from the dead, bringing life and immortality to light through the gospel.
It is fact known to students of history that the two great Romans, Titus the general, and Pilate the procurator, crucified around the walls of Jerusalem 30,000 Jews of the average age of thirty-three years. The name of one of these men is a household word; millions throughout the earth honor it above every other name, counting it an exalted privilege to bow in humble submission at His feet. We feel safe in assuming that there is not a person in this vast audience tonight who can name even one of the other 29,999. How shall we account for the fact that 29,999 of these martyred Jews must evermore remain nameless, while throughout the world men remember and do homage to the one? The explanation is simple, and lies in the fact that all, save one, remained dead, and it is a melancholy fact that the dead are soon forgotten. But Jesus, our Lord, up from His tomb through the wreck of empires and the oblivion of ages, calmly faces the world today with these memorable words, "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me."
In view of these facts, is it a matter of wonder that the cause of the Lord was simply irresistible in its march across the earth? Not gradually, but with the speed of a prairie fire, the gospel dethroned idols, swept away pagan strongholds, and brought the promise of life and immortality to countless thousands from the rivers to the ends of the earth. It brooked no opposition in its advance, recognized no barriers, whether erected by men or devils, gave no odds and asked none in its conquest of the world. It was everywhere the influencing factor, the determining force. Paganism, the varied philosophies of the day, worldliness and vice, all retreated before its advance. Though rivers of blood were shed, and the dying shrieks of martyred saints were heard, it would not, it could not be checked, and ere long many of the persecutors were themselves bound by the cords of the gospel they had so vainly sought to destroy, ever thereafter preaching the faith they had hated. The wonderful success that attended the spread of the gospel in the first century leads one to wonder why, ere long, all the realms of humanity were not soon gathered into the fold. But it was not to be. Before the death of the apostles, clouds, ominous and foreboding, were appearing on the horizon. Paul said to the elders of the church in Ephesus, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock, also of your ownselves shall man arise speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:28-30). And to Timothy he said, "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron" (1 Tim. 4:1-2). The eminent and learned Moshiem recites the said story thus: "Christian churches had scarcely been gathered and organized when here and there men arose up, who, not being contented with the simplicity and purity of that religion which the apostles taught, sought out new inventions, and fashioned religion according to their own liking" (Vol. 1, p. 88).
Slowly at first, but with gathering strength, these innovators got in their hellish work, gradually changing the truth of God into a lie. The torchlight of truth flickered, glimmered faintly for a time, and then went out, leaving a bewildered world to grope its way in midnight gloom. For 1260 long years the world thus blindly wandered in a darkness bereft of the light of God's truth, while the forces of evil held Him carnival. Blasphemously styling himself as Lord God the Pope, Representative of Jesus Christ, one sat in the corrupted temple exercising absolute sway over the souls and bodies of men. The priest ridden peoples were enslaved in soul and body to the mighty papacy, which, like a giant octopus, had stretched out its arms and enveloped the whole earth. And thus the centuries slipped by like drunkards in the rain, men grouped in spiritual darkness, and the corruptions of the years lay like a heavy pall upon the earth. On this scene came Martin Luther (all honor to his name), and with one fell blow, broke the back of the papacy, and put the scriptures back into the hands of the people. Since Christ stood before Pilate and Paul before Agrippa, a grander scene has not been enacted than that of a humble son of a poor miner, standing before the Diet of Worms and answering the demand that he retract his religion or forfeit his life. To the pompous and august dignitaries of the church of Rome, he said, "Since your serene majesty and high mightiness require from me a clear, simple and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this... unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of the scripture or by the clearest reasoning - unless I am persuaded by means of the passages quoted... I cannot, I will not retract... here I stand, I can do no otherwise; may God help me! Amen!" This answer shook the world to its foundations, and will ring along the corridors of time until it mingles with the funeral notes of the last trumpet that proclaims the end of the world.
Others soon appeared to continue the work of reformation, so nobly begun. Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, and a host of others appeared in due time, to aid in the restoration of primitive Christianity. However, it is to be regretted that, having begun so nobly in the spirit, they sought to finish their work in the flesh; for, ere long, a state of affairs prevailed wholly contrary to the genius and spirit of the religion they had endeavored to restore. Creeds and confessions of faith were multiplied, parties and factions sprang into being, traditions and mysticism became the order of the day, and soon the broad truths and fine distinctions of the scriptures where relegated to the background as "mere words" and "dead letters," wholly incapable of bringing life and salvation to the lost.
This state of affairs obtained for more than two centuries; the people were influenced more by the accumulated traditions of the years than they were by the testimony of the apostles; synods and councils assumed absolute sway over the convictions of men.
About the beginning of the nineteenth century, in various parts of the land men began to plead for a return to the "ancient order of things," to urge the restoration of that religion which the apostles taught, unmixed and unadulterated with the doctrines and commandments of men. Boldly protesting against the established order it was their aim to go back of the great apostasy and the accumulated corruptions of the years to the days when fresh from inspiration's pen the words of truth came, and by them restore the church to that primitive purity and glory which characterized it when it came into being on the memorable Pentecost after the resurrection of the Lord from the dead. They adopted as their slogan, "Where the scriptures speak, we speak; where the scriptures are silent, we are silent." They chose to call "Bible things by Bible names," and resolved that "We will receive as a matter of faith and practice nothing which is not expressly taught and enjoined in the word of God either in expressed terms or approved precedent." These wrought with a will so steady, a purpose so high, and a success so fine, no term but sublime will describe their course. Leaders in the movement were the Campbells, Thomas and Alexander, Walter Scott, Barton W. Stone, and a host of others. Fearlessly they unsheathed the sword of the spirit, went forth conquering and to conquer, and soon the citadels of sectarianism were falling at their feet. One by one the champions of denominationalism were being routed from the field, or were themselves enlisted in the fight for a return to primitive Christianity. Literally thousands of people saw the error of sectism, and declared themselves for the truth, forever repudiating denominationalism and all its attendant evils. As the result of the labors of these men and hundreds of others who have continued the work thus begun, there stretches today from the rock-bound coast of Maine to the shores of California the noblest brotherhood the sun has ever shone upon. Within the hands of this brotherhood, and within its hands only, lies the last hope of the earth. Let us fail, let us permit the banner of truth to trail in the dust, and true Christianity will have perished from the earth. What a tremendous responsibility, then, is ours! With what earnest care and concern should we view the work of the past, that we might discover the causes for our achievements, and thus safeguard them for the future!
It will, of course, be impossible to mention all the principles that motivated the reformers in their return to the religion of the apostles. There follows, however, those that were most often insisted upon, and which now need to be ever presented to the world:
1. The state now existing in the religious world is wholly contrary to the will of the Lord; and it is therefore the duty of every faithful disciple to seek its immediate overthrow. Denominationalism is the greatest curse of the age, and so long as a single person remains in its bewildering mazes, our work will not be finished. We have long opposed the existence of denominations, and it is gratifying that our position here has been vindicated at last by the denominations themselves, for in recent years leaders among the denominations have conceded the failure of their organizations to accomplish that for which they were brought into existence. It is therefore, an especially opportune time for lovers of the truth and the true church to press the claim of undenominational Christianity.
2. We, alone, have contended that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is a sufficient rule of faith and practice, and that creeds, disciplines, confessions of faith,, church manuals, etc., are not only unnecessary and unscriptural, but that they impeach the wisdom of God, and imply the insufficiency of His Book of Revelation. No other body in Christendom has thus declared itself for God and His book. The history of the past confirms our contention that only by a return to the book of God can we effect that unity for which the Savior prayed in the shadows of Gethsemane.
3. We have ever held before the world the obvious fact that Christianity consists simply and precisely in believing Christ and of doing what he says; and that there is nothing connected with the plan of salvation smacking of the mysterious or incomprehensible. It is positively amazing that such an obvious fact is wholly unknown outside our ranks; but it is so. We boldly assert that no other body of people in the world promises salvation to people on the simple terms of the gospel, as set forth in the New Testament. To announce, defend and propagate this, we pronounce the greatest boon of the age, the most wonderful achievement of the century. It was this principle so wonderfully advocated in the past that left denominationalism tottering, and which now presages its final doom.
4. We have successfully established the fact that faith is the simple conviction of the truth of what the Bible says, and not, as some would have it, a direct gift, a special work of grace in the soul, etc.; that repentance is the determination of the mind to forsake sin, followed by the act; and that baptism, when preceded by faith and repentance, is performed by an immersion in water, and is for, or in order to, the remission of sins. The task of assigning to baptism its true place in the scheme of redemption has been, and is, a work peculiar to those identified with the restoration movement.
5. We have consistently urged that all human names are unscriptural, and that they constitute a perpetual barrier to that unity for which our Savior prayed. From the beginning we have insisted that the only feasible and workable basis for unity of professing Christians is to "call Bible things by Bible names," purging our speech of such names and phrases as cannot be found from the pen of some sacred writer.
6. We have successfully maintained the fact that the church is God's own missionary society for the evangelization of the world, and that all other organizations designed for this purpose are sinful. Many battles, even in our own ranks, have been fought over this principle, but history and events have vindicated the justness of our claims in this respect.
7. We have ever believed that the Lord delights only in that form of worship outlined in the New Testament; that this is an expression of the divine will touching the question; that we have no assurance that he is pleased with anything other than this; and that it is exceedingly dangerous to presume on the silence of the scriptures. We have accordingly held that all innovations, such as instrumental music, robed choirs, solos, etc., are corruptions of the true worship, and therefore, pernicious and unscriptural.
Many other principles have, of course, been insisted upon, but it is safe to say that these have ever been in the forefront, and on them depended in a large measure the success of the effort. That these items of our faith and practice are eminently scriptural is no longer, with us at least, a matter of debate. Each of them has passed through the crucible, and has been proven pure gold. Indeed, we hesitate not to assert that, at least for the age in which we live, on the successful announcement and propagation of them depends the future of primitive Christianity. They are the grand generalizations of truth and duty with which we have successfully fought the good fight to the present time. To them, we owe our present proud position; and the moment we lose sight of them, we begin to return to the bosom of the great apostasy. These principles must therefore be guarded with sleepless vigilance. Let every gospel preacher saturate himself with them, preach them at every opportunity, never suffer them to be neglected or forgotten; they constitute the hope of the world. This, at least, is our sober judgement.
We are unable to view the future with that unalloyed optimism which seems so characteristic of some. That God's people will ultimately triumph, we have not the slightest doubt; yet we think we see on the horizon signs which augur ill for the cause of primitive New Testament Christianity. He is a poor observer of men and of things who cannot see slowly developing trends utterly subversive of the principles which thus far have motivated us. There is being made a determined and persistent effort to prepare the mind of the brotherhood for changes, revolutionary changes, which will work ruin for churches of Christ if permitted to succeed. We propose herein to instance a few:
1. The tendency toward institutionalism. The ship of Zion has floundered more than once on the sandbar of institutionalism. The tendency to organize is a characteristic of the age. On the theory that the end justifies the means, brethren have not scrupled to form organizations in the church to do work the church itself was designed to do. All such organizations usurp the work of the church, and are unnecessary and sinful. The veteran John S. Sweeney well said, "Christians do not need to spend time and means organizing and fostering such societies. The church of God is spiritual house enough for us to live in, temple enough for us to worship in, vineyard enough for us to work in, husbandry enough for us to tend, building enough for us to work on, army enough for us to march, drill and fight in. People who are contending, as they say, for primitive Christianity, for New Testament Christianity, should stand for the church of the New Testament, and leave others to spend their time and money on human societies, if they cannot be persuaded to do better." This writer has ever been unable to appreciate the logic of those who affect to see grave danger in Missionary Societies, but scruple not to form a similar organization for the purpose of caring for orphans and teaching young men to be gospel preachers. Of course it is right for the church to care for the "fatherless and widows in their affliction," but this work should be done by and through the church, with the elders having the oversight thereof, and not through boards and conclaves unknown to the New Testament. In this connection it is a pleasure to commend to the brotherhood Tipton Orphans Home, Tipton, Oklahoma. The work there is entirely Scriptural, being managed and conducted by the elders of the church in Tipton, Oklahoma, aided by funds sent to them by the elders of other congregations round about. We here and now declare our protest against any other method or arrangement for accomplishing this work.
2. The Pastor System. It will not be seriously denied that there is an arrangement in operation in the church of Christ which bears a suspicious similarity to the pastor system of the denominations. It is idle to deny this. Elders have, in many instances employed an evangelist to feed the flock, and take the oversight thereof, to the utter neglect of the work themselves. It is not surprising that, where this is done, the elders are, too often, regarded as but mere figure-heads, without authority and influence in the congregation. The elders are the pastors of the flock, and not the evangelist; and it is their duty to care for it and tend it. Evangelists are to carry the glad tidings of salvation to the lost, and preach the gospel in regions where it is not known. These facts are so obvious and so well known among us, we attempt no defense of them here. Yet, there is a disposition on the part of many congregations to ignore this and thus to create a new office in the church by transforming the evangelist into a pastor with duties, powers, and responsibilities which belong to the elders alone, requiring him to spend his entire time engaged in this work, and in some instances absolutely forbidding him to extend his labors beyond the limits of the congregation he serves. We cannot but regard this situation as an evil and alarming tendency of the times. It is naturally to be expected that the preachers recognizing the situation, and the responsibility of carrying on the work, themselves, seize authority which the Lord has never given them. Not infrequently do we hear men speak of "my elders," "taking charge of the church," etc., etc., expressions which indicate that the preachers have accepted the situation as it is. We believe that the preachers are becoming the masters of the churches, instead of their servants.
Able brethren throughout the brotherhood are becoming more and more alarmed and fearful of the arrangement now in operation among us. It is time that the elders assert their authority, no longer shirk the responsibility that is theirs, and begin to do the work the Lord expects them to do, thus releasing the preachers to carry the gospel to the lost. We know of nothing that will serve to create more respect for the elderships and restore to them the authority and prestige that is rightfully theirs, than this. We believe that the pernicious and church-destroying doctrine of majority-rule is an outgrowth of the incipient pastor system now in operation among us. Other evils will surely result if a halt is not soon called. Moses E. Lard said, "The modern office of pastor is an office not known in the New Testament; hence the limit of power which may be claimed to belong to it is not therein laid down. Consequently it is extremely difficult to say when the person who fills the office is usurping power which does not belong to him. Indeed, this cannot be done. He is clearly a lawless one; and may, if he sees fit, go to great lengths, and do great mischief before he can be checked. To me, I am free to say, the points of resemblance between pastor, priest, and pope are more than the mere circumstance that each word begins with a "p". From pastor to priest is only a short step, from priest to pope only a long one; still the step has been taken; and for one, I am afraid to run risks; at least I think it safest not to run them. Let us see to it that the ancient practice is our model and the ancient Scriptures our sole guide in this and all other matters. That our churches need the most constant care, I well know, and also that without it, even the best of them must decline; but let us create no imaginary office, no imaginary officer, in order to meet the case. Better is no church with the word of God unbroken than is the best of so-called churches reared on its ruins" (Lard's Quarterly, 1865, p. 259).
3. Tendencies toward Compromise. There has been an ever increasing tendency in the past few years to seek a change in the methods that have formerly motivated us in our attitude toward the denominational world. Brethren have contended for a different method of approach, have urged a modified view of the relation we sustain to the world. Particularly is this true with reference to the tactics that should characterize us in discussing the differences between the New Testament church and the denominations. As a result, debates with Sectarians have become unpopular, strong preaching is frowned upon, and a generally soft attitude has become the order of the day. In the field of journalism, especially, has the battle waxed warm. It is urged that argumentation and controversy have no place in a religious journal; that it is detrimental to the Cause to hand copies of our papers containing such to friends not Christians, and that the papers should be purged of all such. It is strange that proponents of this theory do not see that their argument is equally valid against the New Testament, itself. Paul withstood Peter to the face because he was to be blamed; and later told the world about it in this epistle to the churches of Galatia. Paul and Barnabas dissented so sharply over John Mark that they parted company. Evidently, Luke did not feel the need of suppressing this interesting bit of information concerning those men. Many other similar accounts are recorded with great detail in the book of God. Indeed, we hesitate not to assert that this freedom to investigate and criticize, is the one safeguard against corruption of doctrine and innovation in worship. Only the realization that what we write is to be subjected to the most minute examination and the severest investigation will keep us from apostasy in matters of doctrine. It is indeed strange that any one who has regard for the Lord and His word would seek to surpass criticism, or to lift His utterances above the level of investigation. The very attempt smacks suspiciously of the papacy.
Denominationalism is the curse and bane of the age. So long as it remains to mislead and deceive the people, our work will not be finished. It is our duty fearlessly to unsheathe the sword of the Spirit, boldly go forth to battle, and plunge it into the very heart of sectarianism, until, mangled and bleeding, it is left to die in its own shame. Let the Lord's disciples learn that their Master came not to bring peace on the earth, but a sword. The servant is not above his master. Christianity is, in its very nature aggressive, and its friends must never succumb to that maudlin pietism that trucks to the popularity of the world. The great characters of the past who have walked pleasingly before the Lord have been men who were not afraid. Noah stirred up considerable strife before the flood, and Moses created quite a storm in Egypt. Elijah disturbed Israel, and John the Baptist was beheaded for his fearless preaching.
Christianity in a Changing World. Yes; and it changes with the world only to its own hurt. In its primitively pure state, it is a savor of life unto life; when corrupted by the doctrines and commandments of men it becomes a savor of death unto death. How great the responsibility, then, with which we are charged in keeping it pure and true to the New Testament. Let it be ever remembered that it is not of the world, and to the world belongs none of the glory of its achievements. In the days of its struggles her kings and potentates gave its founder no word of encouragement, her treasuries contributed not a dollar, her arsenals not a weapon, and her priests not a prayer. He bore the burden of her scorn while he lived, and she contributed a cross and a crown of thorns to decorate His grave when He died. With what contempt would Alexander the Great have viewed the little band of penniless disciples charged with carrying the gospel to a lost world. How Caesar and Napoleon would have laughed to scorn such a muster roll as that. But where is Alexander the Great now? Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon now? Lifeless skeletons, standing on their cold and crumbling pedestals in the silent halls of history. Where is mighty Rome now? The very eagles have faded from their ensigns, and her name stands recorded on the broken column that inscribes the downfall of empires. But the cause of the Lord has spread from the rivers to the ends of the earth, boldly bidding defiance to every species of infidelity, giving comfort and hope to millions and pointing sinners to the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 9, pp. 269-270, 277-279