Misunderstandings cloud our concepts, preventing us from grasping the true nature of things and ideas. We wrote somewhat yesterday about the efforts of men to restore the church and how that effort had resulted in more division with its consequent animosity among the various splinter groups. Among all of these groups there remains much misunderstanding of what the church is and what it was meant by the Lord to be.
We noted that some, because of such misunderstanding, place more emphasis on the church than upon the Christ. It was Jesus who saved us. The church isn’t our savior. The church has no life without the Savior. “In him was life” and whatever life the church has it is because of him. Does this belittle the church? No! It simply recognizes a fact.
When we say to someone who has not been saved, “You need to be a member of the church” we are putting our emphasis in the wrong place. When a sinner is saved by the blood of Jesus he WILL be added by the Lord to the church. It is not getting into the church that saves – he becomes a part the church because he has been saved. What sinners need is to come into a relationship with the Savior. Then because of that relationship he is related to all who are in the same relationship with him.
The church should not obstruct people’s view of Christ – it should enhance their vision and clarify their understanding of him. Christ must come before the church. The church must consistently shrink back from calling attention to itself by always magnifying him. This, I believe, is why Paul refused to use eloquent words in the preaching of Christ. Eloquent words would have drawn attention to Paul, not Christ. They may have won him a following, but not Christ. The message of the gospel, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, requires no embellishment. These are facts and a simple stating of facts is all that is necessary to bring people to know the love of God and then to move them to faith.
When we preach the church – in its right relationship to Christ – we must do so with the right perspective. The church exists as a result of what Christ has done. When someone has been saved through obedient, submissive faith in him, he adds them together with all the other people who have been saved. These saved ones are the church. They are saved people – human beings made whole through forgiveness and brought first into a relationship with the Savior and through that relationship, into a relationship with all the other saved people.
These people, by virtue of their common relationship with the Lord are united with one another. They share a common faith and because of that faith also share a common relationship with one another. Where there are a number of saved people in close proximity with one another, they are expected by the Lord to come together to strengthen each other and to be strengthened by each other. It is here in the various localities that the church becomes visible to the world. Through their love for each other and because of their love for all people, they are seen. But the image they are to project into the world is not that of “the church,” but of Christ.
They are the “body of Christ” and as such are expected to appear to the world as functioning as Christ did when he walked among men. When people look at a group of Christians they should see them showing compassion toward people because of their pain. They should see people going among sinners as Jesus did to show them the love of God and to point them to the one who is the way out of darkness, despair and hopelessness. They should see people feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, sympathizing with and comforting the sorrowing. They should see a gentle people, even when it is necessary for them to reprove and rebuke those who go astray. They should see people doing all these things in the name of Jesus and for the glory of him who is the Christ. They should see people, who in their gatherings, joyfully praise God as they remember all his blessings toward them and toward all men.
What is there about this to cause animosity? There is, in fact, nothing that will cause differences, division and enmity except as people are opposed to the rule of Christ. So, where do these things come from? In order to understand that we must look back into history and see how what happened in the past drew people away from the simple, pure life of faith in the Savior that characterized the Lord’s people in New Testament times.
Even in the days of the apostles there were people who were by their false teachings turning people’s eyes away from Jesus. The Judaizers taught a perverted gospel, (Galatians 1:6-9), that required man to save himself by keeping law. This teaching does away with the necessity of the blood of Jesus and places the emphasis on man’s perfect achievement. There were also the gnostics who taught that Jesus had not really come in the flesh but merely appeared to have a fleshly body, (1 John 4:1-3), thus denying and destroying the validity of the death of Christ on the cross. In order for the church to manifest a proper faith-response to Christ, we must first get Christ right. If we do not get Christ right then there is no way for the church to be right.
Ordinarily, in tracing the apostasy of the early church, people have begun with the corruption of the “organization of the church.” I suggest to you that it wasn’t the corruption of the organization that was the problem, but the obscuration of Christ that was the major wrong. The corruption was merely the symptom of the real disease. Beginning with the elevation of one man to be the “bishop” of a congregation, the place and position of Christ “as head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22) was minimized and obscured. That this is what was taking place is seen when this elevation of a man eventually resulted in the installation of the first pope. The pope is considered to be the “vicar” of Christ on earth – that is, he stands in the place of Christ on earth! Christ is obscured, man is elevated. Eventually the church (with the pope) came to be considered as the final arbiter of truth rather than Christ who is the King, the one who alone is to have preeminence.
When the Protestant Reformation began with the objections of men like Martin Luther to the errors and abuses of Catholicism and men began to leave the restraints of the Roman church, there began an era of violent division and enmity. Numerous religious wars were fought. People were driven from their homes and from their countries. And yet the division and the animosity continued, following many who fled to find religious freedom into the lands in which they had sought refuge.
Their problem? Maybe I am oversimplifying, but it seems to me that their problem then was that they obscured Jesus by the things they emphasized. They hadn’t gotten to the core of the problem of the Roman church. All the reformers in the beginning sought to rid the then existing church of its many glaring errors and abuses as they saw them. Among the first of the things they attacked was the papacy. They saw that just one man held absolute power over the faith of millions of people but they failed to recognize that the elevation of any man to any level, imbuing him with any degree of power over others was an obscuration of Christ – so they continues in the development of ecclesiastical hierarchies of one sort or another.
Among others it seemed the thing to do to restore the church was to get the doctrine right and require everyone to believe that doctrine. These statements of doctrine became the creeds by which the various groups identified themselves. Different groups gave a different slant to their creed with no two of them believing exactly the same thing. The result? Christ was not exalted. Men and their creeds were and those who disagreed with them were vilified and demonized.
The same is true of the “heirs of the Restoration Movement.” This was the effort we referred to earlier that sought to abandon denominational names, creeds and practices and just return to the New Testament as their standard. The major thrust of this movement was to restore the New Testament church – to go back to the simple forms and functions of the original church. That all sounds good until you realize that almost all the differences between these people have been over just what the church can and cannot do in its worship and with its money. The result? You guessed it – men and their interpretations were elevated and Christ is obscured. This may not have been their intention, but that is the result nevertheless. In all these things, it really isn’t so much a question of whether a thing is lawful or unlawful as it is that Christ becomes secondary to whatever receives our greatest emphasis.
Today the problem isn’t so much one of animosity as it is of apathy. Each group has what it wants, believes what it wants, does what it wants and doesn’t care that there are those who differ with them. But where is the emphasis? It is upon men. Christ is minimized and obscured when churches cater to the whims and wishes of their members, entertaining and pleasing them.
I realize that I still haven’t gotten to the answer to the problem of religious animosity. That will have to come tomorrow. You may think it presumptuous of me to attempt to offer a solution to such on-going and intractable problems, but I believe the answer really is much simpler than we may realize. Will it make all the problems go away? No, human beings will still be human beings. They will cling to whatever it is they treasure and continue in their own ways.