This article is a written form of a spoken message delivered on February 29, 2004 to the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ. Due to the subject matter and its broad nature, I wanted to enable our members to be able to study out this material in more depth, and the written format will allow that possibility. (Incidentally, having author’s prerogative, I will likely add a tidbit or two that was not included in the oral presentation of the lesson, and leave out a few other items in interest of space.) I just returned from Abilene, Texas, where I and several others from our movement participated on a panel in the Forum part of the Abilene Christian University Lectureships – an annual event among the mainline Churches of Christ. A brief report of the Forum is available as a separate article. I suggest you read it before proceeding further with my sermon, since I do make mention of my Abilene experience several times within the sermon.
The title of my sermon reflects a question that I have received repeatedly in one form or another during the past year. We have as a movement gone through major upheavals, and our members are left wondering what we will be left with when things are totally settled back down. We have historically held to certain convictions and practices that have made us who were are as a movement – hence, the question. However, although the title definitely suggests the direction of the sermon, it is actually meant to be humorous. A reading of Acts 17:11 will show why I say that. “Now 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.” Do you understand the humor in the title? I cannot tell you what we now believe. I can tell you what I believe, and urge you to do as the Bereans and decide what you believe based on the Bible. I will say that I have discussed these things with the ministry staff, and I think they are in agreement with my convictions and conclusions. I pray that you will be as well, but not until you take the time to develop your own biblical convictions.
As I have repeatedly said since coming to Phoenix, I think that we as a movement have done many right things in many wrong ways. I believe that we must own the wrongs in order to repent and change, but I don’t want to stop teaching and practicing the right things, for they are based on important biblical principles. What are the right things, the wrong ways, and what should we now believe and do? Let’s proceed by asking and answering ten questions that are arranged in logical fashion, but not necessarily in order of importance.
What About Our Preaching and Teaching?
One of the panelists from the mainline church at Abilene made some very interesting comparisons between their movement and ours. He claimed that both had substituted the message of the movement for the message of Christ. Sadly, I had to agree in both cases. The mainline church has generally preached about doctrinal correctness within their movement, and we have preached about our successes within ours. Without doubt, our preaching and teaching have been far too much about the movement and man’s accomplishments, and even responsibilities, and far too little about God and what he has done. Therefore, we must have more of a God focus and a Bible focus, delivered with more of an expository approach generally.
I do think it is highly important to say that we still need challenge, not just being made to feel good no matter what. The strength and honesty of the preaching and teaching that I heard in the earlier days of the movement were a big part of what attracted me in the first place. Those preaching were obviously serious about serving God and carrying out his mission on the earth. Paul’s inspired directions to the preachers of his day are unmistakable along these lines. Read carefully the following passages:
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer  nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith (1 Timothy 1:3-4).
Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching (1 Timothy 4:11-13).
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you (Titus 2:15).
It has been said, with a bit of humor, that the preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable! Whatever else may be said, we need more and better teaching – which calls for a better exposition of Scripture, a clearer focus on God, and the challenges that keep our hearts set on God and his will for our individual lives. We are looking for ways to better meet these needs, and we welcome your suggestions as we are thinking and planning the teaching diet of the church.
What About the Need For Leaders and Leadership?
We need leaders and leadership in the church, as does any organization on earth. Our families certainly need leadership, and this being true, it is logical that God’s family does also. However, the history of our movement has some glaring weaknesses in how our leadership has functioned. These weaknesses prompted the writing of a book entitled “Golden Rule Leadership,” by me and Wyndham Shaw, a fellow elder and friend during our years in Boston. An authoritarian manner and a hierarchical structure too often defined what we thought leadership should be. To many of us who were leaders, our structure seemed to have more in common with a military organization than a family. Another of the panelists from the mainline church commented about his early experiences in the campus ministry movement, stating that most of our young leaders seemed to be too anxious to become leaders and too anxious to correct others – including other leaders.
Although I did explain to this panelist that in a fast growing ministry, new leaders had to be raised up quickly, I essentially agreed with his assessment. I do think we have glorified the idea of becoming leaders, and have too often appointed leaders whose worldly talents outdistanced their spirituality. The idea of appointing leaders with natural gifts and then trying to make them spiritual is an idea that has failed time and time again, leaving a wake of negative consequences behind. If our greatest ambition was to imitate Christ, we would have no shortage of leaders or of those exercising any other spiritual gifts. All such gifts are from God, and leadership gifts are just one category. Why exalt those gifts to the point of making those with other equally important gifts feel like second class citizens? There are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom, for we are all sinners on level ground at the foot of the cross.
Having said that, I hasten to say that we still need leadership in the church, and strong leadership at that. By strong leadership, I do not mean harsh or prideful leadership. I do mean that we need leaders who lead by example and call others to follow that example. The passages quoted above clearly indicate that leaders in the church must be decisive leaders who call God’s people to obey his teaching and commands. As leaders, they have both the authority and the responsibility to do so. Two verses that bring these principles into sharp focus are found in Hebrews 13.
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7).
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).
The literal translation of the last verse carries the idea of “being persuaded” by leaders. This means two things: leaders are in the business of persuading with the Scriptures, not simply commanding; and, followers must have the heart of wanting to be persuaded. Is that your heart?
In recent weeks, we have talked about the need for leadership to be of the Golden Rule type, to be carried out in a team leadership style. We want more inclusion and input from all quarters to insure that we really understand the needs of the church. Please help us lead in this way by keeping the communication flowing between those leading and those being led. Those of us who are leading are grateful for the opportunity to help others spiritually by exercising our gifts, and the purpose of our leading is in large part helping you to develop and exercise your gifts. When this is being done, the Body of Christ is truly reflecting him to the world and to one another.
What About Commitment?
In past years, I recall others calling us the “Total Commitment Movement” because of our emphasis on being sold out for Christ. This concept is a good one generally, although we went to some unfortunate extremes in trying to carry it out. Matthew 6:33, which reads, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,” was often misapplied. “Seeking first the kingdom” was interpreted in ways that defied both common sense and Scripture. Interestingly, one of the panelists from the mainline church made an intriguing comment about the concept of total commitment. He said that this terminology put too much emphasis on man and his work, and not enough on God’s part in our life. He said that we should think of being “totally captured” rather than “totally committed.” I see his point, and I like the sound of what he was saying. In my human weakness, my commitment is often lacking, but thinking of being totally captured by the love and grace of God provides me with a much higher motivation, and will likely result in a more consistent commitment.
Regardless of our terminology, the Bible leaves no doubt that our lives must be centered on God and on serving him and his Cause. Luke 14:25-33 has long been one of the most convicting passages in the Bible to me.
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.  And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?  For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him,  saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?  If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.  In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
No one can read this passage and come away with the idea that following Christ is anything less than being totally dedicated to him and to his will for our lives.
One of my biggest concerns for us at this point in our history is associated with what many are viewing as a newfound freedom. Certainly freedom in Christ is wholly biblical, properly understood. But many are not properly understanding it. As with all biblical subjects, one verse cannot be set against others that would contradict it – all passages that relate to the subject must be harmonized. Surely as free moral agents by right of creation, we have the freedom to make choices. However, the choices can be wrong ones or right ones, depending on how they square with Scripture. Freedom in Christ includes the concepts of self denial and servanthood, as the following passages demonstrate:
Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
I’m afraid that many of us are seeing freedom as a license to be self indulgent rather than spiritual. We are fast becoming “pickers and choosers” in what we do for God, as seen in our participation in the activities of the church. It is more difficult to get people to serve in settings such as in children’s ministry than ever before. The price that we and our families are paying for this uncommitted attitude is higher than we imagine.
Let me recount some experiences that may be helpful to you. My last ministry in a traditional type church years ago taught me some valuable, but painful, lessons. I had met up with discipling type churches and was trying to put into practice the things that I was learning from them about evangelism and discipling. I started leading Bible talks on two nearby military bases, with some very gratifying results. A number of people were studied with and baptized into Christ. Their experience with the church was not so gratifying. They came in with much zeal and commitment, but were hurt by what they saw in the church generally. We had an exciting Sunday morning worship assembly, but at our Sunday night assembly (the custom in those churches), the attendance was about half of the morning attendance. Midweek attendance was perhaps one-third of the Sunday morning attendance. New converts were so turned off by the lack of dedication of the “pickers and choosers” that a number of them fell away – disillusioned by the difference in what they read about in the Bible and saw in the church.
Another sad part of this experience was in seeing the children of members grow up and reject what they had been taught. Children are not blind to our hypocrisy in claiming to be disciples of Jesus, while not living according to his standards. We parents may put on a good Sunday face, but our children know where our hearts and priorities really are. Children who grow up with their own commitment to Christ are most often those who first see it in their parents, and those whose parents use “Christian freedom” as an excuse to live uncommitted lives seldom stay with the church as adults. Praise God for freedom, but let’s make sure that we are exercising his brand of freedom. “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).
What About Discipling?
Discipling– now there is a loaded term! Can we still use it? No doubt many will have a negative emotional response to hearing the term, given the abuses that fell under the heading of discipling. What were those abuses? Primarily, an over/under authoritarian approach, in which one disciple sometimes exercised worldly authority over another. Some thought that the discipler was almost “God inspired” to give the right advice in about any area of life. (What a mess that was!) Others felt that the “assigning” of discipleship partners was also wrong, with no regard to anyone’s feelings or opportunity given for input into the process. Some wondered if their assigned discipleship partner was really their friend or only an assignment. Personally, I never struggled with that concept. I saw any new “DP” as a potential new close friend, and strove to make them become that. By and large, my experiences were very positive and I’m grateful for all of those relationships. But make no mistake about it, discipling as we practiced it was often hurtful due to the authoritarian approach often employed.
However, is discipling wrong or only the erroneous practices associated with it? I think that discipling properly understood and lived out is simply “one another” Christianity in practice. The number of verses in the New Testament calling for us to be in each other’s lives is amazing. Surely we are our brothers’ keepers! Outside our fellowship of churches, I have never seen many of these passages actually put into practice. Just look at the following verses and ask how these admonitions can be carried out without some form of discipling:
I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another (Romans 15:14).
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:12-13).
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (James 5:16).
When I first saw the discipling movement in an up close and personal way, I was struck that all of the churches of which I had been a part were missing a vital ingredient in Christianity. One of my sermons back then, delivered in a traditional church, was entitled “The Missing Ingredient.” The benefits of discipling in my life and in that of my family are unmistakable. My marriage, my family, my walk with Christ would not be nearly the same without the discipling help received. Were there some abuses in our discipling? Sure. But there were more pluses than minuses by far, at least in our case, and I suspect that this is true for the large majority of us in the church. Is this not another example of a right thing sometimes done in wrong ways? Let’s change the wrong ways, but hold on to a right and vitally needed thing.
Early last year, as discipling began to be called into question and the structures forsaken, I began giving two pieces of advice: one, seek out discipling help no matter what happens to the structure; and two, take responsibility for helping others when you see things in their lives that need attention. I think that now we can reintroduce some structure that can help us carry out Jesus’ teaching for his family. Our small group ministries can function as a discipleship group, and beyond that, we can voluntarily pair off as prayer partners within those groups – spiritual peers to help one another. Any “over/under” type arrangement should be reserved for mentoring type relationships for younger Christians and for younger ministry staff members in training, and even then, it is a “more mature/less mature” mentoring arrangement without any semblance of authoritarianism included. Let’s practice the best of what can still be called discipling, being real spiritual friends with one another, confessing our sins, praying for each other, and giving biblical advice to one another. We need each other – now more than ever.
What About Evangelism?
Again, we are discussing a very right practice, but often practiced poorly in the past. Wrong ways of doing a right thing would include a focus on statistics for the purpose of being “successful,” thereby comparing well to other people or churches; oppressive accountability that made what should have been privilege and opportunity seem like mere duty; and fear of losing our relationship with God by not being “fruitful” or not fruitful enough. Who of us has not had our guilt mechanism kick into full gear when reminded of our failure to be “fruitful” in a given calendar year? (Where is that concept in the Bible, by the way?) Due to the pressures we felt to evangelize, what should have been our joy ended up too often being just another burden, accompanied by a fear of failure.
Anyone acquainted with the life of Jesus knows that his love for the lost was the driving passion behind just about everything he did. As Luke 19:10 puts it, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” If we have his heart for God, we will also have his heart for the mission of saving souls. His love and concern for lost people came through in many, many ways, not the least of which was the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. He shared this with his disciples on the verge of leaving them, which is significant, since we share what is most important to us when leaving those whom we love. Jesus’ heart for the lost was passed on to those disciples, who went everywhere preaching the Word until the known world of that day had heard the gospel of Jesus.
Looking ahead, how are we to do this right thing in right ways? One, we need to share our faith in Jesus, not simply invite people to church. Two, we need to see evangelism as a lifestyle, instead of an occasional activity. Hence, it should be what we are, not simply what we do. Three, we should focus on the process, not on the results. We plant and water, while God makes it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-8). Any accountability we have should about sowing and sharing, not about successful results in numerical terms – that’s God’s part in the process. If we don’t view it in this way, we end up taking credit for results, thus robbing God of his glory. It is fine to report what God has accomplished through us, but it must be done in a way that takes the focus off of our feeble efforts and places it on his magnificent grace.
Four, we just need to pray for God to put his heart for the lost in each of us. I remember standing beside my son’s bed when he was a baby and being emotionally hit by the thought that he would grow into a man and one day meet God. That thought motivated me to want to be the best dad possible and to raise my children to know and love God. Let’s pray that God would help us to feel that same urgency toward all of his children who are yet unsaved.
What About Our Study Series?
The study series we have often used, called the First Principles Studies, has some pluses and some minuses. On the positive side, having a set group of studies designed to teach persons what to do to enter a saved relationship with God is a good idea. I have taught our study series countless times, and baptized many people after going through the studies with them. For newer disciples, having such a series available gives them an immediate track to get on in teaching their friends about Jesus’ plan for their lives. It also insures that those being studied with are taught the basics in a systematic way. In the absence of some sort of series, each of us would no doubt end up designing one on our own. The effectiveness of what we designed would be totally dependent on each person’s overall understanding of the gospel and knowledge of the Bible, which would result in only knowledgeable disciples having the confidence to study with others. This would further promote one of our movement weaknesses – a distinction between the “clergy” and “laity.” Having a well-developed study series that is relatively uncomplicated to learn and teach puts us all much more on level ground.
Having said that, I think our present series has some serious weaknesses in it. Overall, it is too focused on man and his response (performance), and not enough on God’s provisions of grace. That would especially be true of the discipleship study. It has often been used as one of the first studies, with the evident purpose being to convince people that they are not saved, which does put the focus on man’s performance rather than God’s love for them. That, in my opinion, is a poor place to begin. Further, I think the Kingdom study, if used at all, needs some serious re-working. In general, I think our studies must focus more on God and his crucified Son as motivation for man’s response. Some of the studies I will continue to use much as they are, and others I would want to see eliminated or changed. Additional studies could be added to the series and used on a needs basis.
Actually, that leads us to a good discussion point – how the studies are used. If we see them as the only way to lead someone to Jesus, we have once again made a law out of a guideline, a requirement out of a recommendation. I have taught straight through the series many times, and I have varied the series by going in a different order and/or by adding other studies, depending on the knowledge, background and needs of the person with whom I was studying. My own preference would be to have a new or revised series, with additional studies available for use when needed. From there, training would be important as we learn which studies might be most appropriate in which situations. But under no circumstances would I want anyone to feel slavishly bound to teach the series in a particular way. Learning to think biblically and practically is our greater need, and simplicity is a good guide in doing that. Becoming a Christian is not nearly as complicated as we have sometimes made it.
What About Missions?
When a church growth expert started calling our movement the “International Church of Christ,” it was because of our emphasis and effectiveness in mission work. The “Six Year Plan” to plant a church in every nation that had at least one city with a population of 100,000 or more was quite a plan. No one could claim that we were not taking the Great Commission seriously. That emphasis prompted the raising of millions of dollars and the sending out of nearly 200 mission teams to plant churches. The goal was a great one, and through it much good was accomplished. However, it stretched us as a movement almost to the breaking point in many places. The Boston church alone planted 53 churches, which took its toll. Overall, some leaders were sent out who were unprepared – which hurt them, the ones they led and the mission they had in the first place. All in all, our mission focus has been much more a blessing than a curse.
When any church or group of churches loses its mission emphasis, it will lose other elements of spirituality as well. I remember reading some startling statistics years ago about missions in the group of churches of which I once was a part. According to the article in one of their publications, that group had 800 mission units (either a couple or a single was defined as a unit) outside the borders of the United States doing mission work in 1975. As a result of losing their mission focus, the number of mission units dropped to less than 200 in the year 1990, according to the article. My experience with a number of individual congregations left me with the clear impression and conviction that their overall evangelistic zeal at home diminished at almost the same rate. None of us can have a zeal to save the lost at home without having that same zeal for the lost in other places. The concepts are tied together and will not exist for long if separated. Therefore, a continuing missions emphasis is vital to our being and remaining the church of Jesus.
One very good reason for continuing our missions focus is that we have helped plant churches that cannot survive without our support. To let them die is tantamount to bringing children into the world and not caring for them. Our support structure of a movement organization (the ICOC) and World Sectors is no longer functional. Therefore, we must figure out ways to cooperate with other larger churches in helping out the mission churches. We may not have the same organizational setup we had in the past, but we must develop some kind of organizational cooperation if our present mission plantings are to be sustained. As we do continue to send money and personnel for missions, it is imperative that we share the exact details of how the money is being spent. Past failures in this area cannot be repeated. Neither can we allow past failures to lead us into present failures of failing to support existing missions and to once again expand into new areas that are crying out to be evangelized. Matthew 28 still reads the same regarding this responsibility and privilege.
What About Financial Giving and Tithing?
Financial giving and tithing are not necessarily the same thing. Giving is certainly taught in both Old and New Testaments, and no wonder – God is a giver and to become like him, we must be too. The concept of tithing, the giving of a tenth of one’s income, is primarily an OT requirement. However, tithing is not limited to the Mosiac Law. If you go back to Abraham’s day, five hundred years before the Law of Moses was given, you will find Abraham giving a tithe to God (Genesis 14:20). Although the tithe was not a law requirement until centuries later, somehow tithing was a part of Abraham’s service to his God.
I have never thought of tithing as a Christian requirement, but I have tithed for years (almost always gone beyond that amount), and intend to continue doing so. To me, it is a matter of dedicating my “firstfruits” to God, a specified amount that goes to him no matter what, rather than giving him my “leftovers.” Tithing is something that puts us all on equal ground in one sense, no matter what the actual amount given. Therefore, while I will not attempt to bind this type giving on other Christians, I still plan to give this much, and more, of my firstfruits to God. You will have to figure out what you are going to do regarding giving and then do it. But as for me and my house, we have a plan that is biblically and practically recommendable. As I heard once, I think we will do better financially with 90% of our money and God’s blessing than 100% of it without his blessing. Of course, I am not saying that God will bless one thing and not another, for I’m sure he looks at many factors about our giving. The study of the widow’s giving in Luke 21:1-4 shows that God is not only very interested in what we give, but even more interested in what we have left after giving.
As a young married man, I heard some teaching about money and giving that has continued to influence my thinking and practices. In Matthew 6:21, Jesus said: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I used to view the teaching of this verse in reverse – where your heart is, there your treasure will be also. It seemed logical to think of it in that way, for if your heart is in something, you will also put your money there. However, the verse says that if you put your money into something, your heart will follow. Jesus always looks at things differently than we tend to see them. Most people who have cut back their giving in the past year have either left the church or will end up leaving unless they begin giving their money again. Isn’t that exactly what Matthew 6:21 teaches, that the heart will follow the use of money? Then a few verses later, Jesus says: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24). Materialism is an insidious disease, and one that I am afraid of in my own life. The cure for this malady is multifaceted, but the starting place is consistent, sacrificial giving.
Before ending this section, I do want to express my appreciation for your response as a church to the financial appeals I and others have made this year. Our giving has increased sufficiently to avoid further layoffs of staff and the reduction of other expenses that would have hurt the church. As I have said repeatedly, I believe that our financial challenges are short term challenges, and that God is going to bless us greatly in the long term as a church. With our increased giving, the short term needs can be met while our health as a congregation continues to improve, and improve rapidly. Of course, our giving is ultimately not simply to meet budgetary needs, but to honor our God for who he is and for what he continues to do with us and through us. Let’s keep our primary motivation for giving focused on him.
What About the ICOC and Our Unity?
This question has been asked many times in one way or another. Well, are we still a part of the ICOC or not? The answer is yes…and no. There is no ICOC organizational structure that ties our churches together. Los Angeles nor San Diego will ever dictate directions or policies for the Phoenix Valley church again. Those days are over. Actually, the lack of a central organization has both pluses and minuses. The former outweigh the latter, for sure, but we do lose some things such as lower insurance costs and a simple means of cooperating financially to help mission churches.
The real challenge with our changes is how to remain unified with sister congregations and to figure out how to work together in missions. I think this concern is shared by almost all of us. Isolationism as congregations is not a desirable option. Last fall, the Dallas church hosted a unity leadership meeting, which went very well. All leaders were welcome, whether on the ministry staff or not, and no decisions were made nor suggested for the movement. Decisions are going to be left in the hands of local church leadership rather than made via some kind of central organization, for there is no such organization in place. But we do want to have fellowship with one another and learn from one another. Another leadership meeting is planned for the fall in Chicago, and many others on smaller scales are occurring and will occur. We want to be a united movement, but one united by choice and with the freedom to decide our own directions as individual congregations. Mature unity is a forged unity rather than a dictated one, and we are in the process of forging at present – a noble endeavor for which Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23).
What About Our Exclusivist Attitudes As A Church?
Here we are talking about how we view other churches – are we too narrow? Many apologies by church leadership groups in the past year have included admissions of being too exclusivist and self righteous. A recent statement by a ministry friend put it well: “In my opinion, our movement became so consumed with our ‘distinctiveness’ and defining ourselves as different (which often meant ‘better’) than other groups that much of our eventual troubles came as a result of those very peculiarities.” If our biblical teaching results in others viewing us as narrow, that’s one thing, but if prideful, competitive comparisons result in the same, that is an entirely different matter. Our task it not to outdistance other groups in performance; it is to honor God by loving him, following his teaching and doing his will. Period.
It seems to me that we need to avoid two extremes in being judgmental. One is to decide for God who is ultimately going to be lost. He is the Judge and not us. If some are in heaven that I didn’t expect to be there, Amen – praise Jesus! The other extreme is to decide for God who is ultimately going to be saved, and to be so broadminded in that judgment that we go beyond Scripture. All I know for sure is what God said in his Book, and I am going to try and get everyone to do what it says (including me), while leaving the final judgment up to him. Surely that cannot be an erroneous approach. Bottom line, I intend to continue to teach the Bible as I now understand it, keep studying it with an open mind, and reserve the right for God to judge us all.
Obviously, the ten topics discussed briefly are not an exhaustive list of important and relevant topics, but are some of the main things that made us who we were in the past. God has allowed us as a movement to accomplish some pretty amazing things, in spite of our systemic sins. Now he is calling us to repent of the sins of our youth as a movement and mature spiritually. As I will continue to state, we have done many right things in many wrong ways. For the sake of God and a lost world, let’s not stop doing the right things. Let’s just repent of doing them in wrong ways. I can’t live with the wrong ways any longer, but neither can I live with becoming a traditional, lukewarm fellowship. The question before you is what you believe about these matters and what you can live with. Those are the questions with which you must now wrestle. I commend you to that noble task, with the Bible in your hand and prayers in your heart. May God help us all to reach his conclusions!
—Gordon Ferguson (March 2004)