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January 21, 2014

Transition: Where’s It Taking Us? (June 1993)

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by Gordon A. Rampy
June, 1993

16The present dilemma calls for new objectivity as we search the Scriptures. There’s no doubt about it. We in the Churches of Christ have become preoccupied with the practice and politics of change. Many of us who are older would like to close our eyes and ears and shut out all the articles, sermons, tapes, and videos telling us we must adapt, adapt, adapt. We would like to hold on to the formal, the traditional, the “comfortable.” But the fact remains, change is upon us, whether we like it or not, and it is forcing us toward a face-to-face confrontation with the difficult, and seldom addressed questions: “What really characterizes a citizen of God’s kingdom? Who is or is not included?”

Until recently, most members of my generation could give some pretty simple answers to those questions, answers which included the listing of a person’s post-conversion worship practices. Some deviation from the required position was allowed under the label “erring Christian,” a term which applied to anyone who wasn’t doing things exactly our way after being immersed into Christ for the remission of sins. We were very sure of our doctrine, not very sure of our salvation.

But today, the only available source for God’s answer to the question of citizenship, his inspired Word, is being read and studied and taught with more openness of mind and objectivity. The questioning spirit of our culture has turned us into modern Bereans, more determined than ever to replace tradition with sound biblical truth.

Modern (forgive the expression) scholarship, biblical archaeology, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the advent of more readable and accurate versions such as the New International, are allowing us to open the window on the time of the apostles and to see their message in a far clearer historical context. And the more we are able to transport ourselves out of our own culture and into theirs, the less we are burdened by 1,000 years of opinion and prejudice.

As we approach the New Testament in a fresh search for truth, we can see it divided into three chronologically distinct sections dealing with the announcement, establishment and nurturing of the Kingdom. First are the four Gospels, in which we find Christ’s teachings and interactions with the Jewish population, activities which served to announce that the long-awaited Kingdom of God had arrived, and that through Jesus alone, entry into that Kingdom (salvation) would now be possible.

Next in order is the Book of Acts which deals with the establishment of the Kingdom. It details the conflicts which took place as the Holy Spirit revealed that the Kingdom actually superseded Judaism and that membership in God’s family did not require that one first become a Jew. The author (Luke) is clearly writing this account to assure the Gentile Christian, Theophilus, that the gospel he had received from Paul was indeed backed by the authority of the Holy Spirit, contrary to anything he may have heard from the “Judaizers.” Thus Luke’s objective was to establish Paul’s credentials as an apostle of Christ.

The third and final section of the New Testament consists of the epistles, 11 letters written to individuals and churches who had already accepted the gospel of Christ and become citizens of the Kingdom, but needed authoritative guidance and nurturing in spiritual matters.

Glaringly absent from the compendium we call The New Testament is the “rule book” we would like to find there, or failing that, to make of it. And yet it is complete. It contains everything we need for salvation. There is no other source. Since it makes no claim to be a rule book, we have a responsibility to avoid treating it like one, and instead to approach it as a letter from a loving Creator who wants us to live with him in heaven.

In our present-day confrontation with change and transition we may overlook the fact that our problems are no less traumatic than those encountered by the first Christians. They, too, had to face the question of fellowship during a period when people of varying backgrounds were accepting the message.

The Gospels tell of a transition which began with John the Baptist and the announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of Christ. Resistance to the change came from those whose prejudice prevented them from seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. In Acts and the epistles, we read of the transition from Jewish, law-embracing Christianity to a grace-centered theology that opened the Kingdom to all men, both Jew and Gentile. For Jewish Christians, who gloried in their special relationship with God, sharing their inheritance in the Kingdom with uncircumcised Gentiles, as Peter and Paul taught, was a very bitter concept. Those books also reveal some of the conflicts that arose as pagan converts made the transition from idolatrous worship practices to those which were acceptable to God and to their more knowledgeable Jewish brothers in Christ. Surely our current confrontation with change is no more uncomfortable than what those first Christians faced.

As we study these books, we should be looking for the key to unity and fellowship. What was it that the Holy Spirit proclaimed through the apostles that eliminated the distinctions: male-female, bond-free, Jew-Gentile, and Greek-barbarian? What distinctions does that message eliminate today? Simple as these questions may seem, a lot of great minds (leaders of the Reformation and Restoration movements, for example) have reached widely differing conclusions in their attempts to find answers, so we should not proceed without first humbly seeking divine guidance.

But if we become free from the confinement of our traditional interpretation, we can inhale the fresh air of Scripture and ask ourselves, “What is that I smell?” Surely it will be the fragrant odor of Christ, and nothing else. If, in addition, we find rules, then let us apply them with the same emphasis they are given in their contexts. And if we find grace, let us be honest enough to acknowledge that citizenship in the Kingdom was clearly granted then to some whom today we might not include in our fellowship.

Change does make many of us uncomfortable. But if it leads us to a clearer understanding of the qualifications for citizenship in God’s Kingdom, then perhaps we will come to realize that his family (and ours) is much larger than we thought.Wineskins Magazine

Gordon A. Rampey

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