By John R. Hurt
How long have you been a member of the Lord’s Church? Is it just me or is the general direction, teaching and preaching considerably different than it used to be? Where is the church of Christ headed? Are we seeing the emergence of a different religious body?
Personal Background and Reminisces
It has been nearly 32 years since I obeyed the gospel of Christ. The first weekend that I went to my girlfriend’s home town to meet her family I learned that the Sunday morning ritual included a delicious breakfast and the expectation that everyone in the house was to attend worship services and class. How could any hopeful, young suitor not conform?
My religious background was from the Presbyterian denomination. I had been sent to church by my parents who seldom attended but believed I needed a “church upbringing.” All I knew about the church of Christ was that they didn’t use an instrument of music in worship. This didn’t make any difference to me. I was in love and wasn’t concerned about the religious beliefs of my girl. I just wanted to get married. I agreed that any children we might have would be brought up in the church of Christ.
Later, after we were married, sometimes I would express my thoughts to my wife about the things that were taught, how nit picking some of them were. The thing that always got me though, was that there was always a scriptural basis for what was being taught. The level of Bible knowledge among members of the church of Christ was very impressive to me. Those people knew their Bibles! It didn’t occur to me until years later how coincidental it was that often on my next visit that very subject would come up in the preacher’s lesson with a very logical, scriptural answer to my question.
So when the same preacher came to our home and began to study a series of basic first principal les- sons with us, my mind was already prepared to look for the things the Bible taught. I was amazed at what the Bible taught about the New Testament church. The lessons that we studied taught me that the New Testament gave God’s people a complete organizational pattern for the believed that Jesus was the Christ. I was taught what the Bible says about salvation. Upon belief I was to repent of my sins (Acts 17:30). Then I was to confess Jesus as my Lord (Acts 8:37). I was then to be buried with my Lord in baptism for the remission of my sins (Acts 2:38). Then I was expected to live the Christian life faithfully until death (Rev. 2:10). What a wonder- ful plan of salvation our Lord and Savior has given to us! How could I not obey?
About five or ten years into my spiritual life I began to experience s o m e t h i n g t h at I b e l i e ve m a ny young children of God experience, and I’m afraid from which many never recover. I began to notice that I no longer got the same feeling of “revelation” out of most of the les- sons and sermons. I must admit that I went through a period that some- times I would experience the feeling “not this lesson again.”You see, after a few years we have heard most of the first principal and the majority of the basic doctrinal lessons. Early on as babes in Christ we can experience considerable growth just by being at the services, listening to the preach- ing, and getting up our class lessons. What’s happening is that we are literally being spoon fed the gospel as surely as we spoon feed our little children. This is, of course, the lesson Paul taught the Hebrew Christians (Heb. 5:11-14). At this time in our spiritual growth, it is time to move on to meat instead of milk. We need to understand that to grow we must begin our own study, in addition to what we get from the preaching and the assembly. To be pleasing to God, we must bear fruit and grow in knowledge (Col. 1:10). The danger is that many don’t study properly and grow. Then comes the frequent cry! “Not this lesson again.” When I began to study properly, I never again experienced any such feelings, and I began to experience the “full
assurance,” “wealth” and “treasure” that comes from a personal study of God’s word (Col. 2:2, 3).
Enter Subtle Changes
As I stand on the threshold of sixty and reflect on my years in the Lord’s church, I am struck by a number of things. One is the emphasis of our preaching and teaching as opposed to that of 30 years ago. One of the individuals that I often discussed this with would become infuriated whenever I brought up this point. “It doesn’t make any difference what they taught then,” was his constant reply. This, of course, is true and so was the rest of his point. “It is what the Bible teaches that matters.” How- ever, neither he nor anyone else that I have discussed this with has made any attempt to show me that the vast majority of things taught then were not the truth. There were more lessons on scriptural authority. What was it? How did we establish it? Why was it necessary? When was the last time you heard a lesson about “direct
commands,” “scriptural examples” and “necessar y inference”? How often are these subjects discussed? As we look around us, we hear a call for “the new hermeneutics.” A very liberal call for a new way to interpret Scripture. I’m convinced that one reason that we hear this call is because God’s people have forgotten or never learned the “old hermeneutic”!
Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t believe we are getting nearly as many lessons dealing with truth and doctrinal error. If the church of Christ is correct in the doctrine we teach, the vast majority of the religious world around us is teaching error and in danger of facing judgment in that condition. Should we not continually remind God’s sheep of the dangers of false doctrine? Should we not continually prepare God’s people to be able to answer and refute error? Should we not do everything we can to try and save our friends and neighbors from the error of their way? Yet, we hear the hue and cry, “we are tired of so much negative preaching.” If Colossians 1:28 means anything, preaching Christ should be at least one half “warning or ad- monition.”
Many brethren are uneasy and worried when a preacher actually mentions the name of a denomination from the pulpit. Certainly, this should not be done in an ugly or distasteful way, but are we reaching the point that many of our brethren have so little conviction that they are ashamed to have their visitors hear the Truth proclaimed from the pulpit? Mentioning denominational names from the pulpit has long been a difference of opinion among preachers. Yet, even the casual student of the restoration movement knows that even then there were preachers that would not mention such names publicly. Make no mistake about it though, the lessons taught then were distinctive enough in nature that the audience easily understood that what was being preached was not the same message being taught by the denomination down the street. When fifty percent of the lessons taught from the pulpit become so general in nature that our visitors can’t distinguish them from what is being taught down at the Methodist Church, mark it down, we are well on our way to apostasy! Apply the fifty percent test! Pay attention, the percentage you find may surprise you.
As with every generation, God’s church is under attack. When I first obeyed the gospel, the charge from the denominational world was that we needed to “preach the man and not the plan.” The charge is the same as it has been for centuries. In the current generation the same charge takes many different forms, but the gist is still the same. From our own brethren we hear “the church is teaching too much on commandments and not enough on Jesus.” “The church is not teaching enough on ‘love.’” More recently we have heard that “we are not teaching enough on the ‘cross of Christ.’” These petty attacks often focus on words and phrases that God’s people have used over the years. The “love” brethren made a big deal out of our reference to “personal work.” They insisted that it should be called “discipling.” Now we hear from the latter group that we are not saved by a plan of salvation but by a Savior. All of these are but attacks on the emphasis of the church. There are in our midst those that would change the focus and teaching of the church of Christ. They cannot scripturally show that the teaching of the church is wrong, but they want to quit teaching the truth knowing this will change the church. If we quit preaching “all the truth” for about a generation, they won’t have to be able to refute sound doctrine. The next generation just will not know the truth!
As so often occurs, these ideas are usually brought in and pushed by brethren who have in times past been brave soldiers for the truth. Only God in heaven knows what causes the change in their love for the truth and motivates them to push for a church with an altogether different emphasis. The sad, tragic reality is, though, that the pews are already filled with brethren who are ready and even longing for the false doctrine that they are now teaching. There are those that have never grown for lack of personal study and those that have never heard all those sound, basic lessons of times past. The brother or sister that has never grown and matured in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is often seriously intimidated by the charge, “The church is not teaching enough on the person of Jesus.” And make no mistake about it, the church is not teaching as much on the “person of Jesus” or “the cross of Christ” as the denominational group on the corner. Not only are they intimidated by the charge, many of these brethren find, often for the first time in their spiritual lives, they are moved emotionally by these in-depth lessons. Now, not only are these brethren bored and bothered by the same old lessons on doctrine, authority and error, but they see what they feel is a greater spirituality with the brethren pushing for the new emphasis. After all, what could possibly be wrong with spending more time and emphasis centering our thoughts and affections on our Savior? To them these kinds of thoughts and charges seem to be an effective indictment of what they believe to be the out-dated teaching and doctrine of the church of Christ.
Well, perhaps we would do well to consider the question raised. Are we seeing from this new emphasis a greater more enlightened spirituality? I wonder. One young gospel preacher who was caught up in the “love” movement was thoroughly convinced of this. In several discussions, he told me that almost everywhere he went preaching these emotional, “Christ centered lessons,” some member of the church would come up to him and tell him that they had never heard, in all their years in the church, such stirring and moving lessons. Then, although the words were not quite the same, the charge and implication was that most members of the church of Christ are too legalistic, too caught up in rituals in rote and didactic discipline to have any such spiritual depth. He once said of the congregation where I used to wor- ship “they are as cold as a stone.” How could he possibly know what was in their hearts? (This preacher is now a member of a large main stream denominational group, singing in the choir and happily participating in all their many activities.) You see! All this is a judgment against my heart! Somehow, since I am a member of the church, I don’t have any “love” in my heart. Somehow, I don’t appreciate “the person” of my Lord. Somehow, I don’t have enough depth and spirituality to really understand and appreciate the “cross of Christ.”
Have They Been There?
To adequately consider their charge, please permit me the indulgence to reflect a little on personal study habits. I wonder, have most of these brethren really studied God’s Word? I mean have they really studied and meditated upon it? These brethren who clamor to be spoon fed with more spiritual, preaching lessons of the new emphasis, have they been with Jesus during that tumultuous last week of his ministry? Have they followed on each heart rending stop as Jesus was taken from the garden and then taken first to Annas, then to Caiaphas, then to the council, then to Pilate, then to Herod, then back to Pilate? Have they been there and experienced the grief, anger, horror, utter confusion and doubt. Then, have they stood with the three Marys on Golgotha’s dreadful crest and with a crushed and broken heart watched the most evil deed ever perpetrated by mankind? Through the eye of meditation have they ever wanted somehow, someway to ease the awful pain and suffering of the precious Lamb of God led to slaughter by wicked and ruthless men?
Yes, I know that the charges that we teach too much by repetition and rote are really attacking my spiritual depth. Remember, though, when they can’t refute the plain teaching of the Bible, they come after your heart, your motivation or your emphasis. What I don’t see, though, is how little spoonfuls of spirituality will ever lead to depth. How can listening to a few “spiritual” preaching lessons ever take the place of a life time of in-depth study and meditation on the Word of God? Have these brethren ever sat down and read the 119th Psalm? I mean really read and meditated upon it. Read all 176 verses, each dealing with a different aspect of the revelation of God. Have they then, after sober awesome reflection and meditation upon God’s Word, ever wept for joy? What I am describing here is what countless thousands of God’s people experience to a lesser or to a much greater degree every day of their lives. Members of the Lord’s Church need not be intimidated by those who pay a lot of lip service to the “person of Jesus” or “the Cross of Christ.”
Oh, yes, I also know that some of our brethren that accuse us of “rote religion” as well as many teachers from the denominational world that study and reflect on our Lord, can and often do achieve some degree of “spiritual depth.” The young preacher that I mentioned earlier brought up a denominational teacher that he thought was so spiritually deep. It seems he had just read one of his books and was very impressed with his spiritual insight. “How could one so spirituality deep not be in the right relationship with God?” was his query. What he and so many others with similar questions fail to realize is that the “treasures of the wisdom and knowledge” are there for all who will mine them (Col. 2:3; Rom. 11:33). Anyone who studies the Word of God in depth will be moved and built up by the gems of truth that he mines. Many, indeed, are the lessons and insights that are to be found in the inexhaustible mine of truth. With each new discovery comes a feeling of wonder and exhilaration (Ps. 119:18). The glowing coals of truth give off a warmth to the soul. Legion is the name of many who have spent a lifetime finding and meditating on the wonderful positive treasures of God’s Word. However, the real depth and spiritual understanding belongs to the student who re- members what the angel said to Peter in Acts 5:20, “Go, stand in the temple and speak all the words of this life.” If all we do is center our studying on the many wonderful and positive aspects of our Lord and Savior, our spiritual development becomes one sided. Such a student may find himself numbed by the “positive glow.” Forgive me, but isn’t this dangerously close to hedonism? Even if it is not, isn’t this the same student whose one-sided study may lead him to that often reached erroneous and fatal conclusion, that such a good and wonderful God would never send anyone to hell? What good is our study with- out the proper balance? What good is the study of the Lamb (John 1:29) without the study of the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev. 5:5)? Such a student forgets that it is Jesus who is the primary teacher of the fires of hell.
Perhaps, you too have talked to or maybe read an article of some brother or sister that laments that they didn’t get to hear many in-depth lessons on the “Cross of Christ” or the “Love of God” because the church where they were preached too much on “the issues” or “commandments.” Consequently, because of this they wail and blame the church for their lack of spiritual growth. Yes, the body is to be edified and the sheep fed, but is the church responsible for the total growth of every soul? Not so! The problem here is they didn’t pick up the shovel and walk into the mine!
Have those who long for positive lessons and spoon fed spirituality ever stood in the hot wilderness of Paran and observed as Korah presumed that he could take Dathan and Abiram, sons of Reuben, and take over the duties of Moses and Aaron (Num. 16)? Have they watched in Godly awe and trepidation as God, through Moses and Aaron, taught the people of God what it meant to presume they could worship God in whatever way they chose? Have they backed away in fearful haste from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and then watched in stunned dismay and wonderment as the ground rumbled beneath them and opened up and swallowed them, their tents and their families? Have they in a moment of stunned silence stood aghast in complete belief in the terrible power of God? If through the eye of faith they have been there, they know that God demands scriptural authority for everything we do in our service to him!
Back to the “Ancient Paths”
Brethren, let us not be lulled to sleep by the voices of superficial spirituality. We need not listen to voices that espouse the wonders of the person of our Lord Jesus and teach us to know esoteric marvels of the cross of Christ. Their “more spiritual” pleas are just another call for God’s people to stop work and come down to the plain of Ono. I’m afraid that numerous such calls during the past 30 years have caused the people of God to almost stop the “great work” they have been doing. This “more spiritual” appeal reminds me of the occasion when, as Jesus preached, a woman in the audience “waxed eloquent” and cried out “blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breast at which you nursed.” Jesus replied, “On the contrary, blessed are those that hear the word of God, and observe it” (Luke 11:27, 28). What God’s people need at this point in time is less spiritual eloquence and more?