Tearing Down the Walls (May – June 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mark Henderson
May – June, 1996

When I came to the Church of Christ in 1986 from a Southern Baptist background, I was surprised to learn how little the two groups really knew about each other. The Church of Christ in Dallas which loved me and helped lead me out of a life of sinful rebellion before the Lord bore little resemblance to the caricature of Churches of Christ which existed in my mind. At the same time, the comments which my new brothers and sisters made about “the Baptists” often bore little resemblance to the church of my youth. There was some truth in the assessments on both sides. We weren’t totally ignorant; we knew just enough about each other to be dangerous! It is not surprising that we knew so little of each other because we never had any contact with each other. Our self-imposed isolation from each other was what enabled us to assert so confidently what we knew so little about.

It was easier to live with that isolation during my first 34 years, when I lived in Texas. The church was strong there, so not only did we feel that we didn’t need anyone else, but in some respects, everyone else was the competition. In that environment, Christian unity was a pleasant, but unworkable, idea which we could leave safely on the back burner while we hammered out our positions on “the issues.” Moving out of the Bible Belt, to Boulder, Colorado, has been a great blessing to me because it has forced me to reassess the basis for Christian unity and to redefine, in biblical terms, my enemies and competitors.

Boulder is a college town, about the same size as Abilene, Texas, but there the similarities end! The people in Denver, which is only 35 miles away, refer to “The People’s Republic of Boulder.” “To get to Boulder,” they say, “you drive toward Reality and take a hard left.” On any given Sunday, only seven percent of the adults in Boulder attend any church. The University of Colorado has more than 10,000 students, but fewer than 500 of them are actively involved in any of the campus ministries. Boulder is a hotbed for paganism. Native American religions, New Age philosophies, various forms of Eastern mysticism, and the worship of angels are among the many options here for the people who even acknowledge the spiritual realm. Atheism and agnosticism also abound.

Ours is the only Church of Christ in Boulder and shortly after I moved here, I began to experience a sense of isolation altogether different from the self-imposed, self-sufficient isolation I had known in the Bible Belt. I had barely unpacked my bags before I was hip deep in turmoil over women’s role in the church and contemporary vs. traditional worship styles, among other things. There were also tangible, encouraging signs of the presence and power of God in our midst, but, at times, the conflict had me believing that we were on the brink of disaster. I needed someone who was not involved in our particular situation and who understood the challenges of full-time ministry to remind me to focus on God and his power to accomplish his purpose, because I was often feeling lonely and powerless.

At that time, I believe the Lord led me to the Boulder Ministerial Fellowship. The preacher at a local community church called and invited me to the weekly prayer meeting of the ministerial association. I was a bit hesitant because my prior experience with a ministerial alliance had been less than rewarding. That group had been primarily concerned with offering advice to the local school district, which was trying to learn how to balance the concerns of diverse religious groups. A major task for us was to remember not to say “in Jesus’ name” when we offered thanks for our lunch, because that phrase offended the Jewish rabbis who were part of the group. In some ways, those meetings became another source of aggravation, and I was not eager to add more of the same in Boulder.

I needn’t have worried. The Boulder group was comprised completely of conservative, evangelical pastors. With few exceptions, they were immersionists and without exception, they acknowledged the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Christ. And when they called their weekly meeting a “prayer meeting,” they meant it. They got right to the business of praying for the mayor and city council, the local law enforcement officials, and those in authority at the University of Colorado. They prayed for the children and teachers in our public schools, and they prayed fervently for each other that God would make their witness for Christ strong and that he would break the strongholds of darkness in our community.

I had never witnessed anything like this, and I was moved as these men and women laid aside their differences to unite with one voice before the Lord for the sake of each other and for the sake of the lost in Boulder. I finally interrupted and told them who I was and what church I was from. I told them of some struggles we were facing in our congregation and asked for their prayers. For the next few minutes all they did was pray for me and for our ministry. Many people said many words, but I will never forget the prayer of a man I later learned was the preacher for the Boulder Valley Assembly of God.

He only knows how to pray at full throttle, and he said in a loud voice, “Father, I thank you for this brother and I pray your blessings on his ministry and his family. Oh, God, thank you for the Churches of Christ and for their commitment to your Word. I pray that you will give them a powerful ministry in this community and that they will reach many souls for Jesus Christ.” Perhaps emboldened by this outpouring of love toward me, another man told us that he had been dismissed by his congregation and that he was concerned for his family and his future in ministry. He was invited to pull his chair out into the middle of the circle, and we all gathered around him, laying hands on him as we asked God to heal the wounds he and his family were suffering and to give him another opportunity for ministry. The entire meeting, which lasted an hour and a half, was an overwhelming demonstration of the power of Christ to unite believers who are willing to set aside their personal agendas for the sake of pursuing his agenda.

I have enjoyed many similar experiences with that group since that first meeting, and I believe I have learned some valuable lessons from them. First, I have learned very clearly that my competition and my enemies are not other congregations of Churches of Christ or other believers who are surrendering to the Lordship of Christ to the best of their ability and understanding. Our struggle in Boulder, as it should be elsewhere, is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms who are holding many souls in bondage and deception. Our competitors are the golf courses, the recreation offered by the nearby mountains, the pagan religions, and an overall atmosphere of unbelief. In that monumental struggle, my participation in the ministerial fellowship has reminded me of the words of Jesus in Mark 9:40, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Second, those prayer meetings have served to remind me how easily my focus can be misplaced. When we never venture out from our own four walls, it is easy to spend all of our time and energy dealing with “our issues.” Our ministerial fellowship prayer meetings touch on a variety of subjects—praise, confession, spiritual warfare, etc.—but the singular focus is always that the Lord will glorify himself in his church. It is a refreshing and helpful reminder that kingdom work embraces much larger concerns than whether our style of worship is traditional or contemporary.

Third, I have learned from my association with these other preachers that the views many of us have held of the denominations really are caricatures—comical distortions of reality. It is no more appropriate to speak of “what the Baptists or Charismatics believe” than it is to speak of “what the Churches of Christ believe.” There is as much diversity of belief and opinion in those groups as there is in our own, so the most meaningful efforts toward unity will occur at the believer-to-believer level rather than at the denominational level. It is easier and safer to talk about “the Assemblies of God” than it is to deal with my friend Bob. I still don’t know much about the Assemblies of God, but, in Bob, I have found a baptized believer who evidences a passionate love for the Lord and his Word and whose life is characterized by those beautiful qualities Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” I am grateful that he has not found it necessary to reject me for what he considers my wrong doctrine concerning the work of the Holy Spirit. I extend the same grace of acceptance to him, trusting that he arrived at his conclusions with the same honesty and integrity which I attribute to myself, and we embrace and affirm one another as brothers on the basis of our common commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

I believe it is time for us to reclaim our heritage as a movement devoted to uniting Christians from all the sects. Our recent history in many quarters has been one of building walls around ourselves, isolating ourselves from the denominational world in the belief that there were no Christians among the sects. Or, if there were, they would surely find their way to us. We need to recognize that is an abandonment of our heritage in the Restoration Movement. We have much to teach—and some things to learn from—our Christian neighbors, but that will never happen until we tear down the walls we have erected and get in the business of building bridges. At times, our efforts to reach out and engage in meaningful dialogue with our religious neighbors will be frustrating and disappointing, but I have also learned that there will be times of great joy and fellowship as we experience the psalmist’s affirmation, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” And every time we restore fellowship with a brother or sister we participate in the realization of our Lord’s prayer recorded in John 17: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” For his sake and for the sake of a lost world, let’s do our part to tear down the walls.Wineskins Magazine

Mark Henderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 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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