My first published article, as best I can recall, appeared fifty-one years ago in a periodical called Firm Foundation, whose editor Reuel Lemmons was a peacemaker in a fractious brotherhood that glamorized conflict and regarded peacemaking as a cowardly past-time for compromisers and weaklings. According to Jesus, editor Lemmons deserved to be called a child of God, but extremists on both sides called him other names instead and I think that must have made Jesus sad. I called my article “Emphasis Christ,” naively thinking that title would be universally agreeable. Within a month the piece was blasted by name in at least three militant journals, and it eventually inspired a reactionary lesson book for adults in a course for Vacation Bible School.
And what was my sin that occasioned such rebuke? I simply observed that our choice of words often took emphasis off Christ and put it on the church instead. Instead of saying someone believed on the Lord, or became a disciple of Christ, or began to follow Jesus, the news was that the person had “become a member of the church.” Preachers urged their audiences to “be faithful to the church” and never to “leave the church,” but to “come back to the church” if they did–instead of calling for faithfulness to Jesus and urging believers not to abandon the Savior but to return to him if that happened. I illustrated the point by citing Christ-centered terminology throughout the book of Acts that showed the emphasis of the primitive and, in our interpretation of history, the pristine Christian community.
The chief problem, which through the usually-unrewarded efforts of many faithful people has over the past half-century been greatly resolved, was lack of gospel understanding. We thought that God’s verdict of acquital depended on our own efforts and that his kindness in forgiving our sins was justified because of our own performance record if not based on it as a matter of quid pro quo. By and large, our churches did not preach Jesus but a “plan of salvation.” The result was an unwritten but uniformly accepted system of doctrine explicitly found nowhere in Scripture. The mood was often quarrelsome, and the larger picture resembled more the kind of teaching and teachers that Paul wanted Timothy to stamp out than it does the “healthy teaching” (“healthy” here translates the Greek word that gives our word ‘hygiene’) that the apostle hoped to encourage.
The good news is that the Holy Spirit invaded our churches, enlightened our minds to see Jesus in his glory, taught us that salvation is wholly by grace through faith and that no religious franchise has a monopoly on truth but that we all can learn from each other which means teaching each other as well. What does this have to do with individuals and institutions? This much at least–when Scripture says that “the Lord knows those who are His,” it is talking about people in living and loving relationship with Him, not about a particular Christian “brand” that can claim some exclusive right to dispense God’s favor, and on that basis set itself on a pedestal above the other Christian “brands” that surround it. (Next random time I want to ramble about the irony of becoming institutionally-obsessed while fooling oneself into thinking that one is actually more “non-institutional” than the “institutional” folks who rarely if ever give institutions even a passing thought.)
Be of good cheer — this is almost over.