Conflict to Preserve Distinctive Characteristics
Wm. E. Wallace
The articles in this issue are condensations into article form of material used in a special lecture series at the Belmont Avenue Church of Christ, Indianapolis, Indiana, February, 1967. The speakers were asked to put their material into article form for this special issue of TRUTH MAGAZINE.
The problem of maintaining the distinctive characteristics of the New Testament church is one with which every generation must cope. More power to those in our generation who are carrying the torch of soundness over to the next!
The distinctive characteristics of the early church were threatened by three major influences: Judaism, the Roman cult, Gnosticism. There was Judaism from without, and there were Judaizers from within. Apostles were in trouble with Jewish authorities soon after the inception of the church. Paul was regularly in trouble with Jews, often with Roman officials, and always with false teachers.
Rome was a source of trouble for early Christians. Trouble did not arise from Rome because of any kind of temporal "Zionism" among early Christians. Jesus had taught his followers to render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar. Paul taught that civil government is God's minister. Peter urged proper respect for civil authorities. So, early Christianity was not "Zionist."
Jesus set forth a distinctive religious or spiritual nature, and an "otherworldly" destiny for his followers. There was nothing in his teaching or in the church's mission that could be cited as politically dangerous.
But trouble came. It came first in religious argument with Jews. This resulted in the peace being disturbed. In early church times the Jews got into trouble in Rome (41-54 A.D.) and were kicked out of the city (Acts 18:2). Christians were also objects of such local persecution.
Between 54-68 A. D. Nero ruled in Rome. In July of 64 a great fire raged through Rome for six days, devastating large areas of the city. Nero blamed Christians. Why? Apparently there was a general hostility toward Christians because of their insistence on certain distinctive characteristics, like belief in only one God and a high standard of morality. In distinguishing themselves by such distinctive beliefs and preaching, Christians would engender Roman hostilities.
In the years 81-96 A.D. the emperor Dornitian sought divine honors for himself. He assumed the honorific title "Lord and God." He demanded religious reverence for Rome and the Roman emperor. But Christians, in maintaining their distinctive characteristics, could not render to Caesar what belonged to the God of heaven! So, they were in trouble with Rome.
In the area of doctrinal truth, sound Christians were forced to uphold distinctive characteristics against pagan influences. There was Gnosticism - a wisdom or philosophy of men (Col. 2:8). In epistles like those to Timothy, the one to Titus, Jude's and John's, there are inspired reactions against the growing philosophical fad of that ancient period. Gnosticism disrupted revealed truth about God, Christ, and man. It was essential to confront brethren, who were in danger of being corrupted by Gnosticism, with the distinctive characteristics of the faith once delivered to the saints.
The New Testament may be viewed as inspiration designed to perpetuate and maintain the distinctive characteristics of the church purchased by the blood of Christ.
After the days of the apostles the church was robbed of its distinctive characteristics by the inroads of doctrinal deviations, the modification of worship, and the emergence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The church you read about in the New Testament, during the religio-politico events of the ancient and medieval world, would have been considered subversive and disloyal in its natural opposition to the monstrous corruptions of Christianity by Roman and eastern Catholicism. In reformation days those in the "Free Church Movement" who sought a closer conformity to the New Testament than that represented in the national Protestant and Reformed churches were considered dangerous to the church-state movements of the day.
In American restoration history of the early 19th century, those who contended for the identifying features of Bible Christians and New Testament congregations naturally forsook denominationalism and were drawn into a fellowship close enough to the New Testament brotherhood to justify the claim of restoring the New Testament church.
But soon the encroachments of organizational departure and innovation in worship subverted and perverted the larger element of the restoration body. The minority, maintaining the distinguishing features of the New Testament church, was hard pressed to pass the torch of church identity over to the twentieth century.
The twentieth century has seen great growth in this body called churches of Christ. But history repeats itself. As the minority in the final one-third segment of the nineteenth century passed the cause of New Testament church identity over to the twentieth century, so we who find ourselves in parallel circumstances must do likewise.
This issue of TRUTH MAGAZINE is concerned with some of the things threatening the distinctive characteristics of New Testament Christianity. May it contribute some ammunition and strength to the fight waged by those who are genuinely contending for the perpetuation of the New Testament church through this generation to the next.
TRUTH MAGAZINE, XII: 1, pp. 1-2