Wineskins Archive

January 22, 2014

Transition: Where Will It Lead? (Jul 1992)

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by James S. Woodroof
July, 1992

Our question inevitably comes to mind once a person becomes aware that transition in the church is as inevitable as is change in anything else which is alive. This, however, should not be the first question. The first question for a Bible-oriented people should be “Is transition biblical?” If transition is biblical, a Bible-oriented people will accept it and make whatever changes are necessary to keep aligning themselves with the original, regardless of where the changes may lead. At least this is the basis upon which we have made our appeal to those outside our ranks. We have urged and expected them to change if the evidence warranted change. Can we expect anything less from ourselves? It seems inexcusable for us who have been insistent on change in others to be resistant to change in ourselves.

Every generation of the church has the responsibility and the right to take the church they have inherited and place it up against the original and trim off the excess which has accumulated over the years. Realigning the church is like translating the Scriptures: it must be done over and over again. To refuse to do so will render the church out of dae just as surely as refusing to retranslate the Scriptures eventually renders a translation out of date.

The need to realign the church and to retranslate the Scriptures is similar to the need experienced by a boater who launches his boat from a dock into a stream of water. If the boater wishes to stay near the dock he must periodically realign the boat with the dock.

Those intent on keeping their translations near the original and their church near the original will do a similar “realigning” at regular intervals. The prupose of retranslating the Scriptures and realigning the church is to keep bringing them both back to their source. To refuse to do so is to abandon the principle of restoration.

But the question of where this will lead is a legitimate question. What are the implications of “relauching” at regular intervals? Where will this kind of realigning lead? The bottom line of all such attempst is pointed out in my recent book, The Church in Transition. The bottom line is a call to return to 1) a Christ-centered message, and 2) to an attitude of humility which will allow us to accept others as Christians who have experienced the same new birth as we, but who differ with us on one or more of theose matters which, according to Thomas Campbell, “properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the church.”

The transition incumbent on each generation is never a call to abandon the central truths of the gospel. It is not even an encouragement to abandan the many helpful insights we have gained about the church. For many it will require simply an adjustment in message which restores Christ to the center of the proclamation (instead of the church), and humility as the principal attitude of the believer before God (instead of pride in our correctness).

We will do well at this point to look to Jesus to see if such an adjustment is needed and how to go about accomplishing it.

1. As to the first (the call to restore Christ to the center of our proclamation), we must admit that many of us have for many years made the church the center of our message. But it must be obvious even to the most casual student of Scripture that we have no commission from Christ to preach the church. The only message he commissioend his disciples to preach to the lost was the good news of his death, burial, and resurrection. If we let Jesus determine our message to the world, it is settled: Preach Christ crucified and raised, and call believers to be baptized in response. Then, teach the believers everything Jesus taught his disciples (Matthew 28:19,20).

2. In regard to the second call (to an attitude of humility), there come to mind two occasions on which Jesus addressed this subject. The first occasion is contained in a story Jesus told those who “considered themselves righteous and despised others” (Luke 18:9-14): “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector ….” We all know the story. The man who proudly pointed to the evil he had rightly avoided and recited the good he had properly observed went home unjustified. The other man, who recognized himself as a sinner and cried out for mercy, went home justified.

In making this divine judgment call, Jesus was not putting a premium on sin or disobedience; he was putting a premium on humility. What was Jesus’ lesson if it was not this: Doing right things and refraining from doing wrong things is not the basis of justification before God. Both men in the story were sons of Abraham, but only one exhibited that first attitude of the kingdom: “Blessed are the poor in spirit …” We cannot earn our justification; it is a gift from God to those who come humbly submitting to him as sinners. To stand before God upon our “rightness” is to go home unjustified.

The second incident involved an application of this principle to his disciples. Luke pictures the Twelve grappling with the problem of pride (Luke 9:46-50). One day, according to Luke’s record, the disciples happend upon a man who, of all things, was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They were, to say the least, “chapped” at this obvious intrusion into their space. They went to Jesus and reported it: “John answered, ‘Master, we saw a man casting out demons in your name and we forbade him, because he does not follow with us” (Luke 9:49).

Before we notice Jesus’ response to this report, let’s look at what John was “answering.” Luke 9:46 records that “an argument arose among [the disciples] as to which of them was the greatest. This argument was not a one-time affair; both Luke and Matthew record that pride was a recurring compaion of the Twelve (see Matthew 22:24; Mark 10:35-45). They argued repeatedly about which of them was the greatest. Jesus answered their prideful jockeying for position with both an example and a verbal rebuke. First, he had a little child stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little chidl in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).

It was this statement about the true basis of greatness in the kingdom that John, strangely enough, seems determined to rebut. Why else would he bring up the incident at this time? (Both Luke and Mark record John’s report about the unauthorized exorcist as coming immediately after Jesus rebuked them for arguing over position.) When individual eliteness was denied them by Jesus, it seems John attempted to establish at least a group superiority that would allow them to maintain their pride and feed the human desire for special place. But Jesus did not allow that either. He replied: “Do not stop him. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of what in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward” (Mark 9:39-41).

We must stop following John and start following Jesus! There was, according to both Luke and Mark, at least one man doing good in the name of Christ who “was not following with [them].” Are we resentful of people like that? John was. Do we want to stop them? John did. But Jesus saw it in a different light. Will we follow John or Jesus? Humility of heart and mind must be the “first beatitude” of every attempt to understand true discipleship. If it is not, there will always be resentment, pride, and division in the church. Jesus was not walking the road of resentment, pride, or division. We have walked long enough with the “sons of thunder.” I suggest we retrace our steps and stay as close as we possibly can to the Son of God. It may take some pridful wind out of our sails, but surely, meaningful transition requires nothing less than this … if we choose to walk with the Son of God.

Now, to answer our original question, “Transition: Where Will it Lead?” If we are discussing biblical transition (the kind of transformation/transition to which Jesus constantly called his early disciples and to which, through the apostles, he calls the church of all time), transition is nothing more than that painful but essential task of trimming off the excess, realigning the boat with the original dock, making whatever in-course corrections are necessary to keep us true to the divine original. It is the process we know best as “restoration.”

Then, where will this lead? It will lead us back to the fundamentals of Christianity to whatever degree we periodically drift away from them. It will lead us: 1) to a Christ-centered faith, and 2) to a spirit of humility. Resisting this kind of transition/restoration is tantamount to rejection of him who called us and a renouncing of our long-cherished dream of being his people.

James S. Woodroof

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