As we close another year I feel blessed despite my thinking that the world has waxed worse in my sunset years compared to earlier decades. It is my thought that believers have contributed to the present conditions of the world by having morphed belief in Jesus and discipleship into religious systems characterized by sectarian partisanship and rivalry that repels people instead of drawing them to Christ. Thank God I see this changing as more and more brethren are challenging and questioning some traditional attitudes and practices. They are seeing that brotherhood and unity are a result of being in Christ and to be maintained by “bearing with one another in love” rather than by blackballing, “disfellowshipping,” and dividing.
The primary factor in our divisions is the party spirit. This spirit is most often characterized by legalism in the Churches of Christ. Legalism is the concept or philosophy that one can earn or merit salvation resulting in eternal life by being right in doctrinal beliefs and practices. Services and good works are determinative duties rather than indicative responsives of thankfulness.
The handmaidens of legalism wherein it is primarily manifested are bibliolatry, churchianity, and religiosity. Briefly I want to address each of these in this letter.
Bibliolatry is manifested when the Bible per se and a party’s unwritten creed (interpretations and opinions peculiar to the party) are their emphasis and focus of their belief rather than Jesus Christ. Instead of their belief centering on Christ (Christocentric), it centers on select interpretations of the Bible (bibliocentric, if such a word can be made). A believer’s knowledge and understanding of certain doctrines peculiar to the party are more important than his belief in and devotion to Jesus Christ which is often displayed in exemplary moral living and service to others. At the least, the party member must verbally assent to belief in and fidelity to the unwritten creed because frequently members indicate they do not understand an issue forming a tenet of the creed. For example, the one cup party’s tenet that the cup is not the blood. This is indicative of faith in men rather than trust in God.
When the Bible, or the party’s interpretation of the Bible, is given an inordinate place in the believer’s life, it does not point to Christ, but becomes an end in itself. Being in Christ is not the basis of brotherhood and fellowship, but instead is assent to the party’s unwritten creed. Frequently devotion to Christ may waiver as far as ethics and morals are concerned, but you had better not waiver relative to the party’s identifying opinions. Thus assent to interpretations of certain portions of the Bible becomes the believer’s savior rather than Jesus Christ. What a contrast we have become in comparison to those believers in the first century who did not even have the Bible!
Interestingly, a devotee of bibliolatry usually won’t admit to interpreting the Bible. Party leaders will say that what they “preach” and teach are not interpretations, but what the Bible says. Yet they might spend an hour “explaining” a verse you can read in a few seconds.
Bibliolatry includes regarding the New Covenant scriptures as a legal code which is an important facet of legalism. It is an attempt to earn one’s salvation through actions and expressions based upon one’s correct knowledge and understanding rather than having a loving attitude and lifestyle in response to God’s grace, realizing salvation is the gift of God. No one is declared righteous through the handmaiden of bibliolatry or its mistress legalism. Instead, we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)
Churchianity, like bibliolatry, is a situation in which Christ has been displaced as the center and heart of Christianity. Instead of asking, “What think ye of Christ?” as Jesus asked the Pharisees (Matthew 22:42), the question is “What think ye of the Church of Christ?” The Christological test asked of aliens to determine their response to the gospel and of believers as a test of fellowship has been replaced by assent and conformance to a church creed.
The Churches of Christ of today are primarily a denomination divided into numerous sects each identified by its unwritten creed. Usually these creeds center around what is done in a building on Sunday morning. This is where the Churches of Christ put their emphasis – in “the worship service” or “five acts of worship”. Where do we find such terminology in the scriptures?
A lot having to do with these unwritten creeds is based upon inference, yet brethren will intolerantly insist they are absolutely right and demand conformity in thinking and action to be part of their fellowship. Meanwhile blackballed and disenfranchised brethren may be putting them to shame in their daily presentation of their bodies as living sacrifices, but they are deemed as going to hell because they won’t accept the party’s “truth” about how to worship between 10:00 and 12:00 on Sunday mornings.
As I have indicated, churchianity puts an emphasis upon buildings which by the way are an innovation. The early churches were house churches. It wasn’t until at least the third century that buildings came into existence, signaling the development of the edifice complex that prevails today. Attendance, even perfunctory, at these building on Sunday mornings is a strict requirement. Some churches even require that those who miss a Sunday morning assembly make a confession of wrong for so doing. Many advise that if you are traveling and going to “worship” with another church to save the money you ordinarily contribute to put in your home collection.
Churchianity divides life into the sacred and the secular. It says that God is more concerned with what you do between 10:00 and 12:00 on Sunday morning than how you live the other 166 hours of the week.
Churchianity infringes upon individuality and the right of private judgment. It says that you must do things “through the church” as if you act as an individual, and conscientiously, you are not a part of the church and God will not get the glory.
The bottom line is that churchianity says we are the one true church while functioning as a sectarian party. It ways that we have arrived and what we don’t know or do is not important. Churchianity says look to us rather than Jesus, and like bibliolatry is an end in itself.
You might say that religiosity is the twin of churchianity. The emphasis of both is upon “doing church” rather than surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord in daily living or lifestyle.
The late theologian Karl Barth once said: “Religion is the great enemy of God.” Religiosity is. Instead of being a life-changing personal faith, it is institutional or organized religion that prefers ritual over relationship and obligatory duty over spontaneous joy. Instead of faith being a personal relationship with God, it is compliance with a checklist of orthodoxy relative to party-identifying doctrinal interpretations. The modus operandi is a game to determine who has the power to control highlighted by self-righteousness. Instead of being forbearing in love toward those who challenge or disagree with or question the party’s attitude and creed, they are called names and humiliated in order to get them either to “fall in line” or be “destroyed”. It’s valuing institutional methods and rituals over people who manifest the “image of God.” It’s insulting and isolating one’s self from the “untouchables.”
Just like in Jesus’ day, the prevalence of these distortions of God’s will stem not from the rank and file, but primarily from the party leaders. As I stated at the beginning of this letter, it is my thinking that the world is waxing worse at the present time and as a result belief in Christ is being attacked “successfully” as never before seen in my lifetime. In a sense this may be a “good” thing, bringing us to our senses and causing us to face the reality of where legalism and its handmaidens have taken us and bring about repentance. I see positive signs of this occurring and I take comfort in what the apostle Paul said in Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God”. May God bless you.
J. James Albert