Wineskins Archive

January 6, 2014

We Can Be the Church of Christ! (Nov – Dec 1993)

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by Don Flatt
November – December, 1993

16The Apostle Paul spells out the possibility of religious stability by asking that we “be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). Peter adds, “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).

Although early nineteenth-century Americans were “tossed to and fro,” they were so confident of finding the “right way” that they often changed church membership. Two of the four Presbyterian ministers who joined Barton W. Stone in starting the Restoration Movement at Cane Ridge, near Paris, Kentucky, later became Shakers. The other two returned to Presbyterianism.

Orestes Brownson, a nineteenth-century writer, set the record for being “carried about with every wind of doctrine.” His spiritual odyssey led him from the Methodists to a New England Restoration group of “Christians.”

This “intellectual desperado” later joined the Presbyterians. Concluding they were too formal, he tried to remove himself as far as possible from Calvinism by becoming a Universalist minister. He edited a New Hampshire Universalist journal known as The Gospel Advocate (not to be confused with the current journal with the same name). Disappointed with his chaotic freedom to belive anything he wished, he turned to Robert Owen, Scottish agnostic, who encouraged him to give up his hopless search for the right group.

Unwilling to admit he hadn’t found “the truth,” Brownson moved in and out of Freemasonry. Fearing that the winter of old age would soon leave him “lost in the wilderness of doubt,” he drifted into Unitarianism, which he thought would combine love with morals. After four years, his intoxication with hope led him, in 1836, to start his own group – the Church of the Future – only to discover he couldnt’ convert anyone to his “world-wide movement.” Next, he tried to ignite a religious revolution by writing a biography of Jesus, but no one would buy a copy of the book.

After sampling the American cafeteria of religious options, Brownson entered a Transcendentalist commune, only to be snubbed by Ralph Waldo Emerson. At 41, he converted to Catholicism and spent his remaining 32 years warning Protestants that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Convinced that he had located the truth, he felt sorry for anyone who had failed to arrive at the same religious destination he had found.

How is your spiritual odyssey coming along? Are you “nearer to heaven today” than last year? Did you discover some point along the way where you were satisfied enough that you quit asking questions? Did you settle on a date in the 1800s, when all possible truth had been learned so that all you had to do afterwards was to accept someone else’s conclusions?

Brownson’s intellectual inquisitiveness shames those Christians who proudly assert, “I stand exactly where I stood 40 years ago.” This may be great – or it could merely represent four long decades of being afraid to use the mind God gave you.

It’s all right to use your mind. Go to the Bible to find your doctrine, not to prove it. The Bereans “were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Never question the motives of a struggler or a searcher. Allow questions to be raised without questioning motives.

“There is more faith in honest doubt,” Huston Smith suggests, “than in all the unexamined creeds of the world.” The first-century church did not force members to leave their minds outside the building. The church sould never drive truth-seekers to other groups to find a place where they can ask questions. Neither should it force members to play religious games for fear that intellectual honesty might get them into trouble. Never equate “Doubting Thomas” with “Sinning Thomas!”

We need not, as Brownson, become spiritual drifters. We can be the Church of Christ! We have a scriptural name, book, mission, organization, plan of salvation, plan of worship, and set of moral standards. What more could anyone want?

The answer? Enough spiritual energy to transform the above into a living organism, known as the spiritual body of Christ. Jesus told his followers that although he was leaving this earth, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” which he does through the Holy Spirit (John 14:18).

The physical body of Christ inhabited a tiny spot on the globe, but hs spiritual body has gone everywhere. Christ dwells within the temple of every believer’s heart (1 Corinthians 6:19). Wherever believers go, Christ goes. Since, physically, Christ cannot be in your community today, his spiritual body must be doing the same things he would be pursuing if he did live there.

Are we losing our identity? We will never become everything God wants us to be by merely slavishly following a set pattern arrived at by a certain date in the 1800s. Rather, we will continue to please him by using a scriptural framework through which to carry out the mission that Christ gave his spiritual body. If Jesus spent a week in your community, where would you find him? At church? Visiting the sick in the local hospital? Caring for those without enough food to eat or clothes to wear? Getting involved in every good cause that has a chance of helping people? Soothing the hurting? Or all of the above!

The twenty-first century will demand that we own our faith, not merely inherit it. Although we may not yet have answered every question, we can learn how to live with our questions while continuing to walk hand-in-hand with Jesus. Owning our faith brings a freshness of spiritual energy and vitality we can never know by simply inheriting it.

The person who owns his faith can stand any test – intellectual, emotional, or moral – and endure extreme suffering. Having worked through your questions and doubts, you can then defend your faith, as well as accept its costs and consequences.

Does merely putting the name outside the building make us the Church of Christ? Does merely protecting the doctrine arrived at by some “magical” date make us the Church of Christ? What a thrill to know that we can be the “Church of Christ!”Wineskins Magazine

Don Flatt

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