February 16, 1974
Our thoughts must have crossed on the wind, although your letter beat mine to the box. I have been feeling guilty for about a week now about writing to you, and especially since I put it off twice, already.
On your December 10 letter:
You say: “It seems to me … that the people who … were forgiven … were people who knew what the Lord’s will was…. Their sin… was not … of ‘ignorance’ as one might say.”
It seems to me that if the Lord would forgive people who sinned with knowledge, He would all the more forgive those who through no fault of their own were ignorant when they sinned. Doesn’t that sound reasonable to you? You are right, of course, that Scripture presents no “rosy picture” for those who sin ignorantly. We cannot tell folks: “just go on ignorant and you’re sure to be forgiven that way!” Anybody who did that would either be stupid to the point of being a fool or else would be the worst sort of antinomian and perverter of God’s grace. But there is a great deal of difference between acknowledging that, on the one hand, and going around saying, as so many seem to do (there is no point in calling names here, the principle is what matters), “you cannot be saved because you do not understand “x” issue the same way I do.” Especially when both are Christians, both are honestly seeking to know the will of God, and both concede that “x” issue is not something God has specifically spelled out in Scripture or attached importance to in a specific manner at all, but rather is something men of the 19th or 20th centuries have seen to be an important issue, growing out of the cultural, economic and corporate concepts of the world around them.
That is not to say that God does not have a will in the matter. It is to say that the man of faith must in any century and under all circumstances seek what best pleases the Lord, and that he can decide for himself what he believes does – and that he must then be faithful to that. But it is also to say that we may read from Matthew to Revelation and never find the apostles or Scripture writers dealing with many of the topics which occupy most of the space in many “church papers” today.
True, there are passages which make statements, from which we conclude principles, which principles we then apply to current circumstances. And it is right that we do that! We must do that, in fact, if we are seeking in all things to please the Lord. Yet we must realize that at least three steps have taken place in the process, at any one of which a man might honestly stumble (assuming we have not ourselves) and differ from us. Good men can and should study the thing together, seek together to learn what best pleases the Lord, and be prepared to deal with the possibility that in some of these matters they will not agree on what does. When that happens, all they can do (and I know this pleases the Lord) is each live according to his own understanding of the Lord’s will, each love the other, neither become factious or make a party or creed out of the thing, and neither certainly get the idea that his position on “x” issue is going to commend him to the Lord for salvation in and of itself, or give him a cause for looking down on or despising the other, who also trusts in Jesus and is trying humbly and fully to do His will.
All men of faith will come to the understanding “we” did on a given topic assuming three things
- that “we” are ourselves men of faith;
- that we arrived at the proper conclusion, given all the things that affect one’s understanding;
- and that they too arrive at the proper conclusion.
In other words, all men of faith will seek to do the Lord’s will; they will abide by what they discern that to be; and they will, insofar as they correctly understand His will, be in agreement on it.
Why do men who agree on music, institutionalize, etc., nevertheless still disagree among themselves on women in the church, women’s apparel, movies, smoking, war, women’s covering, Sunday night communion, a multitude of “moral” issues (mixed swimming, dancing, etc.), and many other things actually involving practice, not to mention all the differences on what the Bible means in certain passages and on particular subjects (the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, the meaning of Eph. 4:12ff, aspects of prophecy, etc., etc., etc.)? I do not believe that we can say they are therefore not true believers, necessarily, though that is a possibility with any one of them.
If we see the point there, why do we not see it among those who have become children of God, who differ on instrumental music, institutionalize, etc.? Someone may say, “But these affect the work and worship of the church!” We have already talked about that. Some may say, “But these affect others necessarily, while the things you mention do not affect anyone except the individual involved.” That is true, but so what, so far as this point is concerned? It is true that they can more easily worship under the same roof and disagree on individual matters, than if they disagreed on what they have to do together, but the principle of understanding God’s will and being men of faith while they sometimes differ is the same.
No, God is not pleased when men of faith fail to understand and do His will perfectly in all things. Yet He is pleased with them, because they are men of true faith, which is the condition He has placed on them (and I cannot over-emphasize the humility, the trust, the confession, the zealous seeking of His will that must involve), and He is just and righteous to bless them in that condition of faith because Jesus has already perfectly satisfied His law and offered a perfect life in death for sin. There is a difference in saying one is pleased with what another has done specifically, and in saying he is pleased to love and bless the one who has done it. I love and care for my little girl, who is learning to walk and feed herself, even when she stumbles and falls, makes a mess eating, or knocks her milk off the high-chair and spills it on the floor – and yet none of those things pleases me! But as she learns what pleases me, and as she grows in her ability to do that thing, I will expect her to improve, and will have to punish her if she willfully disobeys – though I will love her even then. 1996 UPDATE: The “little girl” is now 23 years old, a college graduate, and an elementary school music teacher.
As to what would have happened if brethren had followed this way of thinking (as I believe) more scripturally before the split over orphan homes, and so on:
- I think the suggestion of a box-in-the-vestibule would have been a good solution in many places. I know of a church in this county, for example, in which the preacher and half the members were “anti” and the three elders and other half of the members were “liberal.” They did not split, however, but had enough Christian character and love for one another to work out a solution whereby no one’s conscience was violated. Once a month, one of the elders would make an announcement that he was ready to take up a collection for a certain orphan’s home, and that anyone who wanted to give to it could give him the money after the services. They did that, and nobody was forced to do what he could not do in good conscience.
- A “conservative” church in another state recently merged with a “liberal” church in the same town – both were very small – with the understanding, after many hours of prayer and discussion and with mutual pledging of intention and purpose, that they would not do anything in a corporate way that could not be done in good conscience by everyone there. They still have their differences, and probably always will; but they do not need to split over it so long as all are willing to abide by that decision. Nobody is asked to violate his conscience; all are trying to live together in love; they will probably come to some agreement on some things, though likely not ever on other things. But they are able, by practicing the virtues Paul mentions in Ephesians 4:2, to “preserve in bonds of peace the unity the Spirit has given.” They have in common one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one body and one Spirit, one hope of their calling, and one God over all. I suspect this is the way He really intended it in the first place.
On the preacher from the Christian church in your town:
I believe your relationship with him would have to depend on the particular situation. Until recently there was no such thing as a Christian Church denomination, though it was developing for a long time, but now there officially is, and those in it use the name “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).” These are usually, though not always, quite liberal on many points, involved in the ecumenical movement, and all that. Many of them accept people for membership who have not been immersed, much less with an understanding of Acts 2:38.
On the other hand, many who call themselves a “Christian church” are as much against denominationalism and those things are we are, and have no connections whatever with the Disciples. They usually refer to themselves as “the independent brotherhood of churches of Christ and Christian churches.” And even there the spectrum is about as broad as among non-instrumental churches of Christ. So it really depends on the situation.
Of course you can never either engage in or encourage anything you do not believe to be right. At the same time, if the fellow turns out to be a New Testament Christian, you at least have that in common, and a starting place from which to work toward further common biblical understanding. I would not say that such a man is a part of a denominational body, unless he is in fact a part of the existing denomination with headquarters in St. Louis. Because a man attends a congregation which uses the instrument does not make him part of a denomination – unless we conceive of our particular part of the noninstrumental wing of the restoration movement as precisely equivalent with the Body of Christ universal, and lump everybody else under the category of “denominational.” That is something neither the Bible nor the restoration pioneers would have allowed, and, although many do it today, I am not one of them.
As to the idea that this “approach” is the best way to combat denominationalism and sectarianism, I simply suggest that the way many have tried it is certainly ineffective. Not only are the old denominations still going strong, but in some cases the brethren who claim to be so undenominational have successfully created several new ones in principle if not in fact.
The only way I know to do away with denominations is to teach and practice whatever God’s Word really says; do not contribute to the formation or continuation of those that already exist; and by teaching, gradually help put to rest those that were already there. It is kind of like sterilizing mosquitoes: you don’t have to kill all those now living if you can sterilize them, because the next generation will take care of itself as these die out.
What we need to do is realize that all we have a right to be is a simple Christian, a child of God. And all we have a right to be a part of is a simple, autonomous, local congregation, or assembly, of saints. Except, of course, the universal body of Christ, which is sort of automatic so far as we are concerned, because God keeps the roll on that without our help.
I am fearful when I hear folks talking about “we as a people,” “our brotherhood,” “the conservative brotherhood,” or other such expressions. I find no such creatures in the Bible. The “brotherhood” is mentioned a couple of times in the Greek New Testament (once in the English Bible), and it simply means all of the brothers in the world. If I conceive of any collection of folks larger than a local congregation but smaller than all the Christians in the world, I have a full-fledged, genuine, denomination on my hands – whether I realize and admit it or not.
So, how do we get rid of denominations? By calling on men everywhere to simply be Christians; to leave off everything God has not asked for, to include all He has; and all the time realizing that we can slip into the mold of being one ourselves unless we continually work at avoiding it. It is so easy to PREACH undenominationalism. It is much harder to PRACTICE it.
What has happened so often is that folks have gone out preaching, not Jesus, not even the New Testament church, but the restoration movement, the particular historical phenomenon known as the Churches of Christ in America, and have, whether they meant to or not, made folks think that they were saying (as do the Catholics, the Mormons, the. Jehovah’s Witnesses and others): “We are God’s people on the earth; we are His only people on the earth; all His people on the earth attend our lectureships, read our papers, and buy our literature.” That is over-stated, of course, but I am trying to make a point. We MUST preach and practice simple Christianity, without any denominationalism at all. We must teach men who are in it that it does not help their situation before God one bit, and that in fact it displeases Him – that they ought to get out and be just what they profess to be already – simple Christians. And we must never think that we have a comer on that market; men may learn the gospel, become Christians, and do what pleases God in local assemblies without ever having heard of US in terms of a historical movement or “brotherhood.” If they have learned what they teach and practice from the Word of God, they are all we can ever hope to be. 1996 UPDATE: I am not nearly so confident these 22 years later that undenominational Christianity is a real possibility. It still seems wonderful in theory, but it is exceedingly difficult to practice on the ground — especially given the tendencies described above to form “brotherhoods” and to have some identity larger than a local congregation and smaller than all true Christians in the world. The problem does not lie with God but with our seeming inability or unwillingness to live up to our own highest ideals,and that makes me very sad.
On your questions about the “positive quest”: You ask, “does it imply that the person who is not ‘correct’ so far as ‘work and worship’ … is not seeking to please the Lord in all things?” Not necessarily. He might be seeking to do that, and be saved in the end, yet still not be ‘correct’ about some given thing. The only alternative to this is to say that he must be correct about everything in order to be saved, and that all who are saved will have been correct about everything. This is much harder to accept when we see the fullness of God’s Word and the all-encompassing nature of His will. It is much easier to follow when we can conveniently invent a “work and worship” category which we call “important,” and apply it to that but omit the rest of His will.
You then ask, “May it imply this?” Absolutely! It certainly may, and in some cases it most certainly does. That is clearly seen when someone says, “I don’t care what the Bible says … etc.” or words to that effect. Not that most brethren come under that category; I do not believe most do, maybe not even many. But no doubt there are some.
As to whether the man of faith who uses the instrument will someday relinquish it, I cannot say that he certainly will. I do believe most firmly that if he understands it to be outside the will of God, he will relinquish it. The reason for answering the first part negatively is not that his faith allows him to go against his understanding of God’s will, but that his faith and commitment to obey God will ordinarily outdistance his specific understanding of God’s will. When a man becomes a Christian in the New Testament sense, he makes a lifetime commitment to do the will of God, to trust Jesus’ work for salvation, and to depend on God for all things, including guidance through life. But he is a baby in understanding, and he never reaches perfection, even when he becomes an adult. Therefore his commitment to obey, his faith, always outdistances his actual understanding and performance. But as soon as he learns and understands (which is really included in learning) God’s will on a specific matter, he is already committed to align his life with it; so the changes that take place in his life are of growth in understanding and performance, not in his actual faith or his commitment to obey God or his love for Him. 1996 UPDATE: It is also entirely possible that a person of faith might conclude from honest Bible study that God desires instrumental music, or that he has no preference either way. This does not change anything I stated above, however.
Now this may sound like the same as saying “just be honest and sincere and you will be saved,” but closer thought will show a great difference. It is true that the man of faith as I have described him is “honest and sincere.” It is not that that is the basis of his hope or the grounds of his salvation. He is saved by grace through “faith,” not by grace through “honesty and sincerity.” If he has faith, he will be honest and sincere; but he may be honest and sincere yet not have faith at all. Faith, again, seems in the Scripture to involve: acceptance of testimony as fact (last part of John 20), which involves the intellect; confidence or trust or assurance in another (as in Paul’s statement, “I know whom I have believed which involves the emotions; and the decision to obey, the commitment to seek the pleasure of (such as those passages where “faith” and “obedience” are linked), which involves the will. I believe “we” have often limited it to the first (or equated it with obedience, per se), while many Baptists and others have limited it almost to the second (trust, etc.) – and the Bible is broader than either. Yet faith is not the same as obedience: it includes the commitment to obey but they are two separate things.
The case of Abraham and Isaac (Hebrews 11; Genesis) has Abraham being accepted by God on the basis of faith, also on the basis of obedience; yet Abraham did not literally obey God although he was in the process when God stopped him. That does not mean that we can go around saying, “Just plan to obey and you’re ok,” but it does mean that while faith and obedience are joined so tightly no man can properly pull them apart, at the same time they are not the same thing. And salvation is possible because it is conditioned on “faith” – which includes the commitment to obey and leads to obedience – not on obedience itself, which is what the Jews thought in the time of Christ and for which they were so sternly rebuked and/or corrected by both Jesus and Paul. The last part of Romans nine and the first four verses of chapter ten are a marvelous illustration of this point. [We need to give far more thought to this truth in connection with our understanding of water baptism, by which the new gospel believer should express faith in Christ, but which is not the same thing as faith, and in our understanding of the gospel truth that we are justified by grace through faith and not through our own always-imperfect obedience, including baptism itself.]
The hypothetical girl who becomes a Christian and honestly continues to call me “reverend,” etc. really presents only two choices.
- Either I can deal with her patiently and in love as already outlined – in which case, with time, she will become all she is capable of becoming (assuming, as you have said, that she is a person of faith and honestly seeking the Lord’s will); or
- I can give her an ultimatum, demand instant understanding and practice, and cut her off and consign her to the devil – in which case she not only will never learn any more truth from me, but will likely never listen to anyone who resembles me, and will continue in denominationalism and under its influence altogether. I have had the pleasure of seeing the first alternative result finally in the desired end of growth, understanding and obedience in a more perfect manner.
Out of paper; let this do for now, please! I look forward to hearing from you, and will try to do better.
Yours in the Lord,