There is a congregation of the church I know of in Florida. Recently, a man and his wife retired, as many do, to that region. This man has worked his entire life as a minister in Churches of Christ. He was not a well-known speaker, but he spent his entire life working in and among small congregations within Churches of Christ, over 50 years in ministry all together. Some of the leaders in this congregation from Florida found out that he had such a strong pedigree in ministry. They decided they had in their midst an ideal Bible class teacher candidate. Less than two weeks after his arrival in the new congregation, the elders pulled him aside to talk.
They expressed their interest in his teaching some adult Bible classes. At the offer, this elderly gentleman seemed flattered, but he said he needed to be up front with them first. He said he had worked for over 50 years in premillennial Churches of Christ, a segment of Churches of Christ that came under fire early in the 20th century. They have a much less optimistic view of humanity. The tension surrounding premillennials led to a huge division in Churches of Christ. In fact, editors of journals and college presidents worked together to “expunge” the premillennialists from Churches of Christ by mid-century. This man wanted the elders to know that he had spent his life in those congregations. He said he came to retire in their community, but that there were no premillennial Churches of Christ in the area. He would certainly be willing to teach some Bible classes, but he wanted to be up front with the elders first. It took the elders only 20 minutes to come to their conclusion. No, he could not teach. In fact, they asked this minister of 50 years, along with his wife, to leave. They said only “Christians” were welcome in the Lord’s Church.
Paul once told the Galatians… “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
A couple of years ago now, Richland Hills Church of Christ began offering an instrumental worship service each weekend. Rick Atchley has said the reason they chose to offer such a service was simple: they felt they could reach more people. So, for months, they prepared for the new service, auditioning musicians, training their worship leaders, and preparing their congregation for such a big change. The day finally arrived, and thousands of people poured into their building in Fort Worth for the instrumental service. Some people did not appreciate this effort of Richland Hills. Many journals and individuals have questioned whether or not Rick and others are really brothers and sisters in Christ.
Paul once told the Galatians… “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”
I long for the day, church, when we will be known simply as “Christians.” Not as “those people who don't use instruments”, not as “those people who don’t dance (or have institutions that forbid it)”, not as those people who…have a praise team or don't have a praise team, have one cup for communion or many, believe in a premillennial reign of Christ, a postmillennial reign of Christ, or no millennial reign of Christ, support children’s homes or reject them, are ecumenical or are legalists, are white or African American, liberals or conservatives, traditionalists or progressives. I echo the desire of so many that came before us. I want people to look at us and I want them to see our love for one another, I want them to see our love for others, and I want them to say at that moment: “They must be followers of Jesus Christ. Those people must be Christians!”
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves! Galatians 5:1-12 (NRSV)
As you can tell from his words and his tone, Paul is a bit upset with the Galatian Christians (as he often is in this letter). A few weeks ago, when we began this series on Galatians, it was impossible to tell what the central issue was. Why did Paul write to these Galatians? We knew from the opening verses that people had arrived preaching a gospel different from the one they first accepted. But, with these verses, we begin to get the fuller picture. The direct conflict came from the practice of circumcision. According to the Jewish Law, males had to be circumcised as a pledge of their covenant relationship with God. Those who were not circumcised were not in covenant with God. It was that simple! Apparently, some Jewish Christians had arrived with news for their new Gentile brothers. In order to become a Christian, they must also signify their covenant with God through circumcision. In other words, they must first become Jews before they become Christians. Now, to us, this might seem a bit strange. But we forget that early in the Christian age, most Christians did not view Christianity as something separate and distinct from Judaism. They were “Judeo-Christian” in every sense of the phrase. Christianity was Judaism to its logical conclusion. The covenant between God and Abraham continued through the followers of Christ. Those Jews who accepted Christ felt no need to renounce their Jewishness to become “Christian.” They continued doing “Jewish” things; festivals, meeting in the temple, feast days. They did not view Christianity as a new world religion; so, it just made sense, before a Gentile became a Christian, he or she had to accept God just like Jews had for so long, through circumcision!
Paul, however, viewed the issue differently. Christ, he said, brought freedom to the world. Christ took the burden of the Law away from His children and He was very upset with his Jewish brothers and sisters for one reason. They were teaching that a Christian was still bound to the Law. They were adding to the gospel. They were saying, “Jesus + circumcision saves you, Jesus + the Law saves you…”
Paul meant for them to understand one of most basic tenants of the Christian faith. “Jesus + anything is not the gospel!”
Do you ever wonder why the Law was so important to those Galatians? In our time, we have taken on a rather negative opinion of Law, especially, I think, since the Protestant Reformation. When Luther and others stressed faith so much, saying we are not saved by works, but by faith, we often associate Law with other words, like “Burden”, “Harsh”, or “Legalism”. But to a Jew, the Law was something else. To a Jew, the Law was God’s grace. The Law was God’s gift to them, the gate by which they could draw closer to God. By following these Laws, Jews could purify themselves and gain access to God. So, when Paul said that those who are under the Law have “fallen away from grace”, that just didn't make any sense to them. The Law was grace; the Law was God’s gift!
What they failed to realize was this; as good as the Law was, Christ was better. As great as it was to have temporary access to God through the Law, Christ not only granted a temporary visit, but a permanent pass! I often wonder how these Galatians responded to Paul’s letter. We'll never know for sure. I am sure that these words must have been hard to hear. You see for them, the Law was safe. It’s what they knew. It’s where they were comfortable.
But church, freedom always beats comfort…
In The Truman Show, Truman (Jim Carrey) isn't aware that, since birth, he has been the star of the ultimate TV reality show. He doesn't know he lives in a large dome built over several square miles. The producer controls the sun, wind, rain, and even ocean waves with the push of a button. A cast of thousands surrounds Truman, but he has no idea every person in his life is simply an actor. In his thirties now, Truman has become increasingly restless and suspicious. But for the show to continue, he must remain ignorant of the fact that he lives in an artificial world with artificial relationships. Near the end of the movie, Truman begins to understand his situation and tries to escape. He boards a sailboat and begins to sail away. The cameras follow him, and the producer creates tidal waves to keep Truman from reaching the outer perimeter of his artificial world. Yet it finally happens…Truman's sailboat touches the horizon, which is nothing more than a painted canvas.
His suspicions confirmed, he steps off the boat into knee-deep water. Grief etches his face as the truth of his artificial life is revealed. He sees a staircase and ascends to the top, where he finds an exit door. For the first time the producer comes over the loudspeaker and begins to speak to Truman. At this point Truman starts to walk toward the exit door. The frantic producer, who has enslaved Truman for years, begins to unleash a torrent of lies to diminish Truman's courage. Truman stands at the door to real life. While the dome world is artificial, it is all he has ever known, A real, abundant life awaits, but a competing voice with selfish motives urges him to stay in the artificial world. You know, sometimes we choose the Law because it’s safe, it’s what we know, and it’s what we can control. We can see it, we can quantify it, we can judge ourselves by it and we can judge others by it. But as children of God, we must ascend the stairs out of that world and realize that outside that door is real life, abundant life.
These are pivotal years in Churches of Christ. There are people and congregations in our fellowship who are questioning long-held beliefs and activities. Some might say I’m crazy for bringing this up in church, because we don't talk this openly in church. But church, if we do not talk about it who will? And if we do not talk about it here, where will this conversation take place? I think it’s time to stop ignoring the elephant in the room. There are people and congregations questioning our long-held allegiance to a cappella worship. There are others wondering whether we have been too restrictive with women’s role in public worship. Still others are wondering out loud how we should interact with Christians from other denominations who do not believe like we do or act like we do. Furthermore, should we view these folks as "Christians" at all? There is deep-seated disagreement over these issues! And the reality is this; the answers to these questions are not as clear-cut as we would like to make them. There are godly people on both sides of these fights. There are godly people who honor scripture on both sides of these fights. To be honest, I see validity from both sides of these arguments and I can see how they got there by reading scripture. So at the end of the day, church, here is where I come down. I may not agree with my brother or sister who makes this or that decision, but they are still my brother and sister! We are saved by Jesus! We are not saved by Jesus + a cappella worship. We are not saved by Jesus + a certain view of women’s role in the church. We are not saved by Jesus + a certain view of the millennium.
The reality is, there are many issues that are confusing to us and these issues tend to divide us on a regular basis. But that which saves us, the gospel, is crystal clear! Jesus lived. Jesus died. And Jesus got up out of the grave. That is what defines our fellowship—no more and no less. I refuse to make as a matter of fellowship those things which we ourselves have a hard time figuring out. If you've not heard the news yet, let me be the first to tell you. If you have accepted Christ, you have been set free. And as slaves made free, let’s proclaim that good news to the world.