Christians Only – Not the Only Christians (Apr-May 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mike Cope
April – May, 1997

Editors’ Note: Mike Cope recently delivered a series of messages at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, on the strengths of our Restoration heritage. One of the messages, “Christians Only—Not the Only Christians,” has been transcribed and widely distributed by critics. Here we are including the message (minus the introduction and conclusion for the sake of space), choosing to keep it in its original (i.e., oral) form.

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Does anybody know what I mean when I talk about “The Lord’s Church”? In my upbringing, that was the code word for talking about us. We didn’t want to use “the Church of Christ” all the time, because that might make us sound like a denomination and so we would use another phrase, “The Lord’s Church.” But that was a way of boiling it down so we knew we weren’t talking about all the people out there in Christendom anymore. We were talking about the real church, Churches of Christ. And it didn’t matter whether you capitalized the first “C” in Churches of Christ or not; we knew that we were talking about God’s people and that all others were lost.

That old joke about being in heaven and saying, “Be quiet, they think they’re the only ones here,” wasn’t funny to us. We believe that! There was no humor in this offensive quip.

I remember clearly the night I took my Baptist girlfriend to church and heard the preacher talk about Baptists and Christians as two distinct groups. I wasn’t ready for her angry reaction, because I’d never thought of any other option. It made perfect sense to me to speak of it that way.

“The Lord’s Church” was insider language to mean, “the Real One,” versus denominational groups of people who think they are Christians.

My view of history at that time, and I’m not sure how many share this, was a very simple view. That is, that originally there was this perfect church. (I don’t know now which one I was thinking of. There don’t seem to be many perfect ones in the New Testament.) And then there were hundreds of years with no church. And then in the early eighteen hundreds, suddenly again there was this church recreated because we went back to the old well.

Now that’s a pretty simple approach to church history. It was one that appealed to me because you could ignore about seventeen hundred years in there! (That cut down on what you had to learn in church history class for the finals!)

We emphasized the point by putting cornerstones on our buildings that said the church was built in Jerusalem in A. D. 33. Now people down the road may have a little marker that said it was built in 1893, but that was the problem! They were late-comers! They aren’t “first century Christians.”

Now I can’t even conceive of having believed that. I don’t blame anyone for my having believed it, but I did.

But I’ve learned a lot about that understanding. It is an “illusion of innocence.” Movements like ours begin with a wonderful, healthy, vibrant focus. But then another generation comes along and forgets much of what was healthy and vibrant. Calcification and petrification begin. Eventually, we live in this illusion that we’re the only true followers of Christ, thinking that if others aren’t like us in all ways, then they aren’t following God. There have been several historical movements that have gone through the process. We’re but one of them.

There was, of course, a lot of security in this for me as a teenager. There was lots of comfort in believing that God has a very select group of people and that I was part of that people (at least if we weren’t wrong on some doctrinal issues!).

But I was faced with a couple of problems.

First, I went to Harding University and sat in Jimmy Allen’s Romans class.* A lot of you remember Jimmy from his sermon on Hell. You can remember the temperature as he preached on it! What you may not know is that through Christian history many of the people with the strongest messages on Hell also believe most strongly in the doctrine of grace. And that was certainly true with Jimmy Allen.

I sat in the class with all my presuppositions about being the only Christians—us and no one else. I kept listening to this man whom I admired as he opened the book of Romans and spoke about salvation in Jesus Christ alone and as he talked about undenominational Christianity. Some cracks started to form in my “solid foundation”!

Second, the greater problem was my exposure to other people. If you want to believe that you’re the only Christians, you have to be very careful about whom you expose yourself to. It’s best to go hide in caves like one group did in the first century. If you keep your distance from others, then you can continue to convince yourselves that you’re the only faithful ones.

But what are you going to do with the many wonderful Spirit-filled, Jesus-like, prayerful believers who don’t go to church where we go, who weren’t baptized the same way we were baptized, and whose doctrine doesn’t line up exactly like ours? That was the crisis for me.

As I read church history, I came across people who had given their lives for Jesus Christ, people who had watched their babies be murdered rather than recant their belief in Jesus, People who prayed and wrote books on prayer like Jesus Christ was their closest friend.

And then I started noticing the people who were having such an impact on me.

First, and foremost, Billy Graham in the fervency of his evangelical message and his integrity. Richard Foster and his commitment to prayer and holiness. Tony Campolo and his call for Christian service and resisting the world’s influence.

But the biggest challenge for me was a man named John Stott. As I read more and more works by this Anglican preacher, I wanted to be like him in many ways. He’s a man with a passion to bring the message of Jesus Christ to this culture.

And then I got to spend three days with twenty men — a little group that included Stott. The closer I got to him the more I saw that everything I’d seen from a distance was even truer up close. He’s a man of utter holiness. A man in whom the Spirit works powerfully. A man of prayer. And yet, on the other hand, a man who didn’t share my understanding of baptism. Full of God’s word. Full of God’s Spirit. But different understanding of baptism.

We could earlier in Churches of Christ have called this the “James Dobson problem.” Nearly two decades ago, we had churches wanting to use James Dobson’s film strips. But what were we to do with the man himself? When we showed Paul Faulkner’s videos, we would say, “This is a video series by Christian psychologist Paul Faulkner.” But when we showed Dobson’s videos, we’d introduce it as “a video series by James Dobson, a psychologist who writes and speaks from a Christian perspective.” This kept us from having to say he was actually a Christian. We didn’t quite know what to do with him. He was a man of deep holiness and prayer who was trying to save our families.

Then one day it hit me. I needed to come clean on this. Because I believe that these are God’s people, even though they’re not a part of my little group.

I — not necessarily the people around me — had been like the apostles in Mark 9: “Lord, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop.” You can imagine Jesus saying, “Excuse me. You did what? You think it’s better to have demons running wild than to accept someone who doesn’t have a baptismal certificate with the authentic raised seal?”

Even bigger problems than these public figures are the ones you and I live next to: godly people, some of whom we’re in Bible study groups with. People of the word and of the Spirit. Some of you teach with, live next to, and go to school with people of great godliness. I’m not suggesting that we know they’re Christians because they work hard for Jesus. I’m not trying to sneak legalism in here. I’m talking about people in whom you see God’s Spirit working. I realized that I had been misreading scripture. Scripture never tells us to draw a line of fellowship anytime there is a difference. If we do that, we’ll be the most divided people in existence, while Jesus in John 17 begs for a united witness to the unbelieving world.

It hit me that unity can’t come by uniformity. We are never going to be united by trying to clone people, by insisting that everyone have the same personality preferences, or understanding of all scriptures. We’ll never have unity that way. This brings us back to the first lesson in this series, where I pointed out that if you want uniformity, the thing to do isn’t to give everyone a Bible but to hide everyone’s Bibles. The church in the middle ages had much better unity of that kind. People then were told by church officials what to believe. The minute you start translating the Bible and giving it to every child and adult saying, “Read this book and follow what it says,” then you’d better be willing to accept some differences.

Romans 14 and 15 speaks about a doctrinal issue where there was a lot of disagreement. Paul is giving them advice. Don’t look down your noses at others; don’t demand that others agree with you completely. In Romans 15:7 he told both sides to “accept one another just as Christ accepted you in order to bring praise to God.”

There is a circle of fellowship. But the circle has got to have a central point and a circumference. The central point is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ alone. That’s the center of this fellowship at the Highland Church. We believe that God has revealed himself most clearly through Jesus.

But now, at this point I hear some get sloppy and say, “And that’s it.” But that’s not a circle. That’s just a point. That’s the critical center of the “circle of fellowship.” But scripture also describes a circumference: first, the way we live (You can’t live in open rebellion against God!); and second, the way we hold to the central message of the gospel (You can’t deny the basic message of Jesus Christ and his saving work!).

You can’t live in willful disobedience to God’s Word and remain in the church’s fellowship. You can’t kick him out of your life and be in fellowship with his people. The church is going to bring you back in by loving you enough to say, “You can’t do that and be in our fellowship.”

Then there are some things that you have got to hold to in your teaching. Not every little matter, but the central tenets of Christianity. For example, if someone said, “I don’t believe that Jesus Christ really came in the flesh,” that’s a big one. That was actually happening when 2 John was written.

Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.

Here’s an example of this circumference. If someone starts messing with the essence of Jesus Christ and the salvation that is in him alone, there is a breach in fellowship.

But a lot of the issues that come along don’t fall under such foundational denial. Disagreements come from honest, godly people grappling to understand scripture.

Now, here’s my question this morning: “Do we have to chunk our heritage?” Absolutely not! This is the heritage where we can recognize other believers!

This past year, Promise Keepers hosted the largest gathering of ministers ever in the history of the church, as far as anybody knows, in Atlanta. I didn’t get to go, but I heard about it. One evening Max Lucado, former member of this church and now minister of the Oak Hills Church of Christ in San Antonio, spoke on unity. He called on Christians to quit building walls between denominations, but to let those walls come down. To honor one another and to give a witness to the world by the way we treat one another. To quit thinking that we’re the only little ones in Christianity. It was a valiant call for unity.

Someone told me that after the sermon a couple Charismatic preachers began laughing. One turned to the other and said, “Isn’t that just like God? Isn’t that just like God? Use a Church of Christ preacher to call us to unity!”

Yes, that is like God. That message fairly represented our heritage. Max wasn’t telling us to take a detour. He was being faithful not only to scripture but also to this heritage he’s a part of.

This is what our people said: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.” And they also insisted that we be “Christians only, but not the only Christians.” At our best, we’ve been a group that is committed to the ideal of undenominational Christianity. Yet we’ve also understood that in this world this ideal won’t be fully attained. But we don’t quit pursuing the ideal!

Barton W. Stone, one of the great early leaders of the Restoration Movement, said that unity should be our Polar Star. “How do we come to unity?” he asked. He suggested four possibilities.

The first is Book Union. Let someone write a creed and we’ll all sign it. But that won’t work. Who would get to write it?

The second option is Head Union. Give everyone a Bible and expect them to interpret every passage the same.

The third option is Water Union. Make sure everyone is baptized alike, and then we’ll have union by water.

None of these would offer us unity, he insisted. Instead, Stone called for Fire Union. We are united by the fire of God’s Holy Spirit, by God’s presence among us.

Alexander Campbell, another key leader of the Restoration Movement, was asked in 1837 by a woman in Virginia about the people scattered about who haven’t been immersed the way we teach. Are they Christians or not?

Campbell, who at times could sound pretty rigid, replied:

“Should I find a Pedobaptist [which would include someone like John Stott] more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I would not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most….I cannot be a perfect Christian without a right understanding and a cordial reception of immersion in its true and scriptural meaning and design. But he that thence infers that none are Christians but the immersed, as greatly errs as he who affirms that none are live but those of clear and full vision.”

These leaders were committed to unity. The prayer of Jesus Christ was ringing in their ears. Does that mean they watered down what they understood? Absolutely not! These people understood that you could call for unity and still keep hammering out your understanding of the scriptures. These aren’t mutually exclusive.

That’s where we have gone astray. We think we have to give something up. We somehow think that we can’t believe what we studied last week about the Lord’s Supper and baptism and still hold to what our movement used to believe about unity. But you can!

At our best we’ve been a group committed to the ideal of nondenominational Christianity, eager to study God’s Word and obey it, while in humility recognizing that we don’t have full comprehension of his truth. In gratitude we’ve recognized that faith in Christ alone is what brings salvation.

Aren’t there some lost people in denominations? Someone might ask. Well, yes, there are….just as there are in this assembly this morning. But there are also Christ-followers out there, as well. As the best of our heritage has always known, we can believe this without giving up our deep convictions about scripture, about baptism, and about worship.

Well, as long as I’m hanging out here on a limb, let me tell you a couple dreams I have. The first is a long-term dream. It seems to me that something is happening right now — something from God. Not just in the world but even here in Abilene. I get that feeling from what happened at Promise Keepers this year, and especially from Max’s speech.

Also from the speech that Mark Henderson gave at the ACU lectures this year. Mark talked about moving to Boulder, Colorado. Before he went there he could always be with people who were like him; but when he went to Boulder he didn’t have that privilege. Only 7% of the people there attend church. It’s a different environment, and so he was thankful for a group of ministers who were already meeting—ministers from many different denominations. He had fears as he went in, but then as he heard them pray and saw the power of the Spirit in them he gave God thanks for their friendship and fellowship. I agree with that and wasn’t surprised that Mark believed that. But what I wasn’t ready for was the affirmation of the people there at Moody Coliseum. They were ready to hear that message! The vast majority stood and applauded afterwards, many with tears in their eyes, because they remembered that this represented who we are. We are the people committed to unity because the Lord prayed for it.

There’s a group of ministers like that here in Abilene whom I’ve been with, and it’s powerful to hear their prayers for one another. There’s a Baptist church on South 7th that recently sent Highland a note saying they had spent a Wednesday evening praying for us. Where is all this coming from?

My long-term dream is that Highland will lead out in this direction of unity. I would love to have a time when Phil Christopher, a friend who is the minister at 1st Baptist, and I could exchange pulpits. Not to show that we’re progressive: I have no interest in that. Not to stick it in somebody’s face so they’ll be bothered: I’m sure not interested in that! But as an opportunity to express our mutual faith to other believers and to witness to unbelievers through the unity of God’s people. Think of the power if Highland leads out in calling all believers to unity in Jesus Christ!

Now, here’s my more immediate goal. Maybe this is really the point of this message. Our leaders may or may not decide to do what I just suggested, but I know this: all of that is irrelevant if this one church isn’t itself a model of unity. We are just clanging cymbals if we go out there saying, “Yeah, we ought to build bridges,” but then don’t show this unity in our own church.

The ultimate point of this lesson is that we must treat one another with attitudes that are godly, with humility, with compassion, and—in our disagreements (like maybe even concerning this morning’s lesson!) — with the love of the Lord. “In all things, love.”


*The author, while wanting to express gratitude for Jimmy Allen’s insights twenty years ago, doesn’t wish to indicate that Jimmy would agree with all the conclusions in this message.Wineskins Magazine

Mike Cope

(Transcribed for the Web from the archived print edition by Neita Dudman)

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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