By Tom M. Roberts
One of the curses of every generation is the cause and effect, action and reaction of religious extremism. Rendering it difficult to achieve objective biblical understanding, extremism pushes and pulls one like a pendulum on a clock: back and forth, back and forth. Those caught in this vicious cycle are condemned to an endless series of drastic doctrinal positions, none of which is solidly based on a “thus saith the Lord.” Thus denied a scriptural foundation, each swing of the pendulum takes one further and further from truth until any semblance of identity is lost.
The apostles had to contend with this problem. While some Judaizing teachers advocated for a law/gospel merger (Gal. 3:12) that would permit justification by “perfect law-keeping,” the opposite extreme championed grace that would cover all sin unconditionally (Rom. 6:1). One extreme would attempt to merit salvation by works; the other would cheapen grace by making sin impotent. Neither was right.
Martin Luther was the product of the pendulum effect. He accurately saw Catholicism as an advocate of salvation by works. In his reaction to this error, however, he swayed to the opposite extreme of justification by faith only. Failing to see the truth (justification by faith), his extremism became popular and has doomed Protestantism for generations to a denial of all works and a false security upon faith alone. The biblical truth of an obedient faith that accepts God’s grace (Eph. 2:8, 9) is lost to millions.
But however ancient this problem is, it is yet modern and remains with us to this day, clouding our understanding of revealed truth. A proper understanding of the “body of Christ” (Eph. 1:22, 23) or the “church” (Gk: ekklesia, from ek, out and klesis, a calling) is made more difficult because some have succumbed to extreme positions that pull us, as the pendulum, back and forth, back and forth.
Centralization vs. Individualism
There are two passages of Scripture that describe opposing, extreme views of man’s service to God: centralized control and individualism. The truth lies not in either pole.
We are told in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 of the “man of sin who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.”
On the other hand, Judges 17:6 describes a time when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
If the question were asked, “Which of the two passages accurately describes the church of Jesus Christ?” we would have to answer, “Neither.” One teaches coercion, the other chaos. Both passages describe extremes which deny the truth of God about the body of Christ.
We can see the dangers of blind conformity to a centralized hierarchy which denies the validity of individual discipleship. But there is an equal, if antithetical, danger in stubborn individualism which would shatter the concept of a congregation which is designed by God to harness the personal strengths of disciples into a viable unity that avoids both extremes.
We must consider the third alternative, in the light of the Scriptures: congregationalism that recognizes individual discipleship without a conflict in either case.
The Church Is “People”
Most of us know this, but it is worth saying again, “The church is people,” not bricks and mortar. Denominations often confuse this, but surely we know better. Jesus said that “God is a spirit” (John 4:24) and Paul added that he “dwelleth not in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). But God dwells in the church for we are “builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). Whatever God’s people are, God dwells in them. He dwells in us as individuals (1 Cor. 6:19) but he also dwells in us as a body of people (1 Cor. 3:16). This knowledge should help us in our understanding of our relationship to God through Christ “in the church.”
It has been argued by some that “church” is a mistranslation. Some “versions” of the Bible have been written to erase this word. “Church,” we are told is a hold-over from King James’ prejudice and reflected his concept of a centralized institution similar to that of Catholicism. Granting that Catholicism (if not King James) did and does see “church” as a centralized hierarchy with universal control, does this necessarily mean that the truth must only be found in the opposite extreme of separate individual-ism? Must we fall prey to the pendulum effect and swing to an opposite extreme or can we come to the Scriptures and define ekklesia in terms that will avoid such wild contrasts?
In objecting to “church,” one writer has said: “Put this down as fact: In the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by His apostles there was no such thing as a church, a religious institution. There was no `universal church’ nor a `local church (Charles Holt, “The Myth of the CHURCH of the Bible,” The Examiner, Vol. 2, No. 6 [11/87], p. 5). Again, he stated, “God’s smallest, largest and only functional unit is the individual” (Vol. 1, No. 3, p. 21). Again, “the Lord does not have a church” (Vol. 2, No. 6, p. 2); and again, “there is no church in scripture” (ibid., p. 3).
If this were all the information available, we would be on the horns of a dilemma indeed. Thankfully, the Bible presents us with an alternative view which avoids these mutually exclusive extremes and describes God’s people in unmistakable terms.
The Bible Ekklesia
The ekklesia is people, seen at times as individual disciples in their relationship to Christ. We find this distributive sense in Hebrews 12:23 (“general assembly and church of the first born”); Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22, 23; etc. As individual disciples, they were to render service (Matt. 5:16; 1 Tim. 5:16; etc.) as opportunity permitted. Much of the New Testament refers to individual service.
The ekklesia is people, seen at times as congregations, local collectives of people who have been saved, added to Christ (Acts 2:47), then joined together (Acts 9:26; Eph. 4:16) for service as a local body of people (Phil. 1:1; 1 Cor.1:2; etc.). This group may be assembled (1 Cor. 5:4) or unassembled (Acts 8:3), but they are identified as a congregation, acting as a whole (corporately). Each congregation is an entity, having letters addressed to it (epistles), having a treasury (1 Cor. 16; 2 Cor. 8, 9; Acts 11:27-30; 2 Cor. 11:8), and acting as one (1 Cor. 5:4).
As one man may be both a son and a father without a contradiction of terms, so also may a Christian be an individual disciple and a member of a congregation with-out conflict. In fact, to fulfill our responsibilities to God we must operate in both realms of service. Isolating one relationship from the other and pitting them against each other results in the extremism which has so damaged the Lord’s people in our times.
Extremism Hinders the Gospel
While it is a fact that truth is often perceived by many to be radical when it is not (baptism, one church, adulterous marriages, modesty, etc.), there is an extremism that is a violation of true biblical teaching. Extremism is a caricature of truth. It is truth bent out of shape. Since it is the zealot that most often falls into extremism, it should come as no surprise that the most vocal and strident extremist is the very one that generates the polar opposite; the vicious cycle continues, extreme begets extreme, and the pendulum continues to swing.
While we should never be afraid of being wrongly charged with extremism, radicalism or fanaticism (the early church “turned the world upside down,” Acts 17:6), let us be sure that we build our faith securely on the foundation of truth, avoiding extremes that hide the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 17, p. 6-7
September 1, 1994