Why I Need the Church and the Bible
Some people wonder why they would ever need the Church or the Bible. Why not just go for a walk on the beach or climb a mountain and meet and worship God there? Can you not experience God as well or perhaps even better in nature than at Church or from reading the Bible? I do not doubt for a minute that you can experience God in nature, for I have done that myself. Nature has a way of opening the human spirit to the Divine. Our experience of God while in nature often seems more real than anything that we may experience at Church or from reading the Bible.
I have found that when I wish to travel to a place, I want to know everything about it. I will read everything I can about it, and I will try to find people who have been there and are able to answer questions about that particular place. I find myself filled with questions. What is the best way to get there? What should I see? What should I avoid? What should I wear for clothing? You see, I do not want to be surprised. I want the best trip possible. I especially do this when I go for a hike in the mountains, for I do not want to get lost. The harder the climb, the more research I do.
Going to church and reading the Bible are like the research one would do for a journey unto a very high and often dangerous mountain. For me, it seems only natural to talk to as many people as possible who are on or have made the journey. I once went to Africa and climbed Kilimanjaro. I called everyone I could find who had made the climb, even complete strangers, and asked them about the mountain and the trails. I wanted to be ready for anything. I wanted to make it to the top. When Christians gather at church, it is mainly to talk about the journey and to study the map. They consider their map to be the Bible. The strong and knowledgeable ones among them who have been on the journey a long time do not attend church solely for themselves, but also to help the young and weaker ones among them. They want everyone to get to the top. They share with them the trails to avoid and the ones to take. They make sure that the young ones know the map and the right and best guides who can help them on their journey.
Let me say something about the map. It is true that sometimes people get the map mixed up with the real territory. When that happens, people often spend more time reading the map than moving on in their journey. I know some people who are always reading and talking about the map, but never seem to get too far along on the journey. They seem to have confused reading the map with the journey. This is truly sad because it confuses people about the reasons for the journey and the purpose of the map. Of course, on the other side of the coin are those who feel they can do okay without a map, compass, or a guide. These folks often end up in a briar patch lost, cold, and hungry. They often spend a great deal of time backtracking and wandering around aimlessly. However, some of the stronger ones seem to get along fairly well without the map, but when asked where they are, they often do not seem to know. The little ones and weak ones without the map and compass often just die or quit.
Because the journey is often long and hard, the map at times can be quite hard to read. It does have a lot of details about the journey. It is there to help and is very important. However, it can be confusing to someone not too skilled in map reading. When the journey gets difficult, it is then a person needs to remember the training in which the guides taught him about how to use the map. It is even better if travelers have cell phone, so they can call a guide for further directions on how to make best use of the map. We always need to remember that the map is a piece of paper that only reflects the territory. It is not the territory. We also need to remember that the map was made by a lot of people who have made the journey and left us their story about it. When we read the map, remember that those who wrote it were all on the same journey, but not all used the same trail and all did not make it to their destination. Like in nature, some trails are better than others and a bad choice can cause you to lose your way or even perish. Yes, some died on the journey without making it to top or back home. This is another reason why we should study the map; we want to know that we are on the very best trail.
If you are not a member of a church, let me suggest that you find someone, maybe some of your friends who are on the journey and ask them about the church they attend. Ask them if they study the map and if its members are excited about the journey. If they say yes to both questions, you might want to check it out. You can also begin the journey by getting a Bible and start becoming familiar with what it teaches. You do not need to understand everything—just start reading it. A good place to start is the Gospel of John. If you do not know of anyone who is able to help you, you can write me, and I will be glad to help. I often have map reading courses at my office or even in people’s homes. If you would like to attend one, let me know. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Goal of Religion
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).
Religion is man’s attempt, through his own efforts, to close the gap between himself and the transcended. In a sense, religion itself is evidence of a vague remembrance of a lost relationship. Therefore, we might conclude that the goal of all religion is to unite God and man, or what we might call the “at-oneness” of God and man. In religion man tries to bridge the chasm between himself and his God. The idea to bind back or to bind together is inherent in the root word from which we derive the word religion. Although the goal of religion is a worthwhile one, we will see that it is not achievable.
Mankind’s efforts to bind himself back to God have taken many forms throughout the history of the world. Usually these forms are nothing more than the projection of man’s wishes or a reflection of his own culture that he projects into heaven. In other words, man creates God in his own image.
Therefore, it is not surprising that most tribal gods resemble and validate the society they ruled over. They are nothing more than a reflection of the culture that created them. In fact, this is not like Western Christianity that has subverted the teachings of Jesus to justify its capitalistic system and the brutal wars it has fought to support it. Though man is and was self-deceived and often self-justified in creating these gods in his own image, he was not self-satisfied. There still remained a nagging awareness that there was something more than the dumb idols that he had created in his own image. There also remained this terrible sense of alienation that his tribal gods could not deal with. So there were a few men who began to seek the true God apart from religion.
Salvation Without Religion
The greatest example of this in Biblical history was the man named Abraham. Abraham did not seem to be an overly religious man, at least according to our standards. Yet he left his father’s home and his tribal gods to seek a new land and the true God. We are told he found God, or should we say, God found him outside of any organized religion. Not only did God find him outside of religion, but God also saved him outside and without any religion. We might say God saved him in the place where God put him, but that place was not organized religion. Though God has often used religious men to proclaim His will, when it comes to a paradigm, or model of faith and salvation, God used a non-religious Abraham. This is not to say that Abraham never practiced religion. For after God chose Abraham, we find him proclaiming his faith by making an altar to God. However, this simple proclamation of faith is a far cry from the cultic worship of organized religion.
From the story of Abraham, we come to understand that it was God’s intent from the beginning to save all men apart from religion, through a personal relationship with Him through faith. His goal was to have such an intimate relationship with His people that they would be called the friends of God. This was to be even as their father Abraham was called the friend of God (James 2:23). His method of achieving this was to create a new being or a new humanity that would relate to Him not through the mediation of religion, but directly, friend to friend. This was fulfilled when we see Jesus (God among us) calling His disciples friends (John 15:15).
God’s intent to create a new humanity or new being did not start with the coming of Christ. No, it actually began in eternity and took its first form with Adam. It was revealed in a fuller degree in the man Abraham and later revealed completely in His resurrected Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12 ff).
Thus in the story of the exodus we see God bringing the family of Abraham, which by that time had become a nation, out of Egypt to Mt. Sinai. Here they were to enter into a faith relationship with Him, the kind of relationship He had with their father Abraham. However, the people chose not to have a faith relationship with Him. Instead, they chose to have a mediated relationship with Him through the mediation of religion. Therefore, God gave them a religion, with the idea that the religion might mature them, or at least give them enough time to mature to the point where they could have a true faith relationship with Him in Christ (Gal. 3:25-27). He did this not because of anything He saw in them as a people, but because of the promises He had made with their father Abraham (Deut. 7:7-9). He also promised them that He would send someone in the future who would lead them into this faith relationship He had with their father Abraham (Deut. 18:17). We see this promise fulfilled in the coming of Jesus the Christ.
There is Biblical evidence to show that God, at the time He was developing a relationship with Abraham, was also in a relationship with other men of faith. For example, there was at the time, Melchizedek, king of Salem, who is referred to as a priest of the Most High God. Later on there was Balaam, the prophet of Pethor, who was outside of the covenant, yet had a relationship with the true God. In this, we might gather that God never had an exclusive people. In fact, the nation of Israel was called to be a servant and a blessing as it mediated God’s presence to all of mankind. So how can anyone interpret his or her calling as condemnation for the rest of the world? From the very beginning, the nation of Israel was a symbol that God not only loved them, but also the world. Today the body of Christ has inherited this role of being the symbol of God’s love for man. Wherever Christians go in the world, they are to proclaim God’s love in word and deed. Thus they become living symbols of God’s love for all of mankind (John. 3:16).
The Making of Religion
Though God had developed a faith relationship with a few men in recorded history, the majority of men continued to manufacture their gods and their religions. We moderns should not be too hard on ancient man. For the only difference between them and us is the number of gods we have created. They had their tribal gods, and we have our personal gods. They created their gods in the likeness of their culture, and we create ours in the likeness of the individual self. It could be a toss-up as to which is more primitive. They used their religions and gods to validate their culture, and we do the same. They used their religions to restrain and to justify their brutality, and we do the same. It seems from all of this, religion is both a blessing and a curse. The apostle Paul came to this conclusion and saw this paradox of religion when he cried out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25). God rescues us from the body-religious by judging it in Jesus as weak and unprofitable, nailing it to the cross with His Son, thus putting it to death (Heb. 7:18-19, Col 2:14).
The Paradox of Religion
The paradox of religion is by all human standards, it should work. Religion’s chief tool in binding man back to God is law, and we all know that law is good therefore religion should work. The truth is that law is good when it is used lawfully. It is here that religion fails, for it neglects to see that law is not the way for man to be at one with God, nor can man bind himself back to God through obedience to a law or through the practice of religious ritual (Gal. 3:21-22). Therefore, it is not lawful to use law (religion) as a mediator or a bridge between God and man. The lawful use and purpose of the law would be to view it as a schoolmaster or a tutor who was put over mankind until men had enough self-knowledge and God-knowledge to seek God through faith. When men become of age, they no longer need religion. The Scripture tells us that a man becomes of age when he realizes that he cannot approach God through religion, but must come through simple faith in Jesus Christ.
In other words, religion and its laws are not for the spiritually mature, but rather for those who are still spiritually immature and in need of external rules and regulations to control them. In the book of Colossians, Paul addresses the subject of religion and its rules. “Since you die with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch? These are all destined to perish with use because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:20-23).
Paul’s list of don’ts sounds a lot like many modern preachers of religion as they wail against the social sins of their congregations. To the spiritually immature, this appears to be God’s will, when in reality it reduces God to a tribal god. This tribal god is used to support one brand of morality and culture. This god is usually the kind that is chosen by and benefits the ruling class and the clergy. Preaching against social sins also show a profound misunderstanding of the nature and degree of the problem of sin.
The True Bridge to God
God intended the law (religion) to be used as a sign to point the way to the true bridge to God (Gal 2:19). It points to Christ who is the true bridge to God. In this, the law pointed to its own end or goal (Rom. 10:4). With this in mind, we might look at John the Baptist as the final embodiment of the law and prophets. He was the forerunner who was to point the way to the perfect revelation of God, which is Christ. In speaking about his mission he said, “A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Matt. 3:3). In this act of preparing the way for Jesus, John symbolized the law (religion) and its divine purpose of pointing man to Jesus. Unlike many modern Christians, John understood the temporal nature of his ministry and the law (religion). This can be seen in his statement, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). In other words, religion must decrease in order for Christ to increase.
In contrast to the law (religion), we might say that the true bridge to God is the way of grace (promise) and that the promise has been embodied in the man we call Jesus. The pinnacle of this promise is seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus. For it is there that we see a preview of what God is going to do for and to all men on the final day. Therefore, in the Christ event we see judgment and promise. We see judgment on death and sin. Sin being death in the form of life is completely negated along with death. Moreover, in the resurrection we see God foreshadowing the fulfillment of all of His promises. In the resurrection of Christ, God is promising a life with Him that is beyond anything we can imagine (Eph. 3:11).
It is here that we see Jesus as the true end and fulfillment of all religion. If you remember, I said the goal of all religion was the oneness of God and man. It is in the resurrection of Jesus that God foreshadows the oneness He will have with His people in the final resurrection of the dead: a relationship that we now have by faith in our new place, which is in Christ, a faith that believes that whatever God did in His Son He will also do in all of His people. What did God do in His Son? He formed a new creature, a new kind of being—a being that never existed before Christ took on flesh. In the mighty acts of the incarnation and resurrection, God became man, and man became God. Thus in Jesus we have a God-man being (for a lack of a better term) who is the prototype of the new creation of God. In this new creation we see God and man coming together in the person of Jesus Christ and forming the new being. In the Christ event, God shares with man a preview of where He is taking humanity. So in Jesus Christ, we see the goal and destiny of the new humanity. Thus we see God’s eternal purpose of becoming one with humanity in and through the new being, Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10, 3:11-2). He became like us, that we might become like Him (1 John 3:2, 1 Cor.15:49).
Death, Resurrection, and Atonement
In much of traditional Christian theology, the atonement of Christ is said to have taken place on the cross through His death. However, I believe that this view of the atonement is too narrow. It does not give to the resurrection of Christ the importance it rightly deserves. I believe it is the entire Christ event that makes up the atonement. This would include the incarnation, His life, death, and resurrection, and in a sense, even His second coming. In a very real sense, Jesus Himself is the atonement. Each of the events in His life makes up a part of the whole story of how God has made man at-one with Himself through His Son. To use only the metaphors of death, sacrifice, and law to understand the atonement is too limited and tends to fragment the gospel. This limitation destroys its unity and causes the neglect of some aspects and undue emphasis on others.
I also propose that the idea of atonement is a prophetic metaphor that prefigures what will happen to all believers in the resurrection. In fact, it already has begun to happen in the new humanity. For Jesus, as the head of this new humanity, now stands in the presence of God as the one new and complete man who represents the entire race of men. The new humanity is being created in Him and in His likeness. In this one perfect and complete God-man, figuratively stands all of the new humanity in an at-one relationship with God. So we see that it was the resurrection that sealed the atonement and becomes a promise and a foreshadowing of the future resurrection and at-oneness with God. In this, Jesus is the first one of the new humanity to enter into the heavens to experience an at-one relationship with the Father. In solidary with Him, we now experience that relationship through faith (Eph. 2:4-6).
Moreover, in Jesus the final resurrection has already begun and because of our faith-union with Him, our resurrection is therefore guaranteed (Rom. 6:1-11). It is on this promise, the apostle Paul bases his argument in his letter to the Corinthians that it is in the resurrection of Jesus that we see the beginning of the general resurrection: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (1 Cor. 15:12-13). Paul can argue like this because he saw the resurrection of Christ as the beginning of the end-time resurrection. For Paul to deny the general resurrection is to deny the resurrection of Christ Himself. If this is the case, how can a Christian believe in the doctrine of reincarnation? Christians believe in resurrection.
Paul adds further strength to this idea when, in the same chapter, he refers to Christ as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor.15:20). The word firstfruits in this expression is our particular concern. There, with few exceptions, firstfruits have a specifically cultic significance. It refers to the firstfruits offerings of grain, wine, cattle and the like, appointed by Moses. The point of these sacrifices is that they are not offered up for their own sake, as it were, but as representative of the total harvest, the entire flock, and so forth. They are a token expression of recognition and thanksgiving that the whole has been given by God. Firstfruits express the notion of organic connection and unity, the inseparability of the initial quantity from the whole. It is particularly this aspect that gives these sacrifices their significance.
“These ideas of representation and organic unity, apart from the specifically cultic connotations of the Septuagint usage, find expression in the use of firstfruits in 1 Corinthians 15:20. The word is not simply an indication of temporal priority; rather it brings into view Christ’s resurrection as the firstfruits of the resurrection-harvest, the initial portion of the whole. His resurrection is the representative beginning of the resurrection of believers. In other words, the term seems deliberately chosen to make evident the organic connection between the two resurrections. His resurrection is not simply a guarantee; it is a pledge in the sense that it is the actual beginning of the general event. In fact, on the basis of this verse, it can be said that Paul views the two resurrections not so much as two events, but as two episodes of the same event. At the same time, however, he clearly maintains a temporal distinction between them. Then (v.23) makes this apparent.” (Resurrection and Redemption by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.)
Resurrection, the Goal of all Religion
In light of the above, we might say that the goal of religion and all of life is resurrection. Not just the resurrection of any man, but of God’s one and only Son. Here, it is important for us to understand that the expression “one and only Son” and “only begotten Son” are used in the Scripture mainly to denote uniqueness and authority and not order of origin. Jesus is the unique Son of God because he is one of a kind. He is the prototype of the new creation or new humanity that has been in the plan of God since the beginning of time. In Scripture we see the ongoing history of God’s creative acts as He is creating this new humanity. All of God’s mighty acts were parts of a single and progressive creative act that finds its completion in Christ.
Much of man’s emptiness and his corresponding need for religion comes from his vague consciousness of being incomplete, and much of his sense of alienation is a longing to be made whole or complete. This alienation is heightened when men try to bring themselves to completion without God. No man will find completion in anything outside of God’s plan. God’s plan for completing man is man’s bodily resurrection in the likeness of Jesus. You might say that much of human anxiety comes from the fact that mankind is only partially created as he progressively moves to his completion in the resurrection (2 Cor. 3:18). Therefore, believers should look suspiciously on any teaching or movement that promises completeness or liberation before the Parousia (second coming). We miss the mark when we try to find fulfillment or completeness in anything in this life; this includes religion, even the Christian religion. In fact, religion is one of the easiest ways to miss the mark, for it gives its practitioners a false sense of completeness. No one will find completeness and wholeness until God is finished with him. He is not finished with believers until their bodies are resurrected in the likeness of God’s Son (Rom. 8:22-30).
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we see in capsulated form the entire history of God’s creative acts and eternal purpose. All of God’s dealing with mankind is summed up in Jesus. We might say that Jesus was God’s epitome of His creative history. Therefore, we find Jesus being referred to as the new Adam, the new Israel, the new creation, the new exodus, new Torah, etc. All of these things point to the final and complete creative act of God, which is Jesus Christ raised from the dead. This helps us to understand why such emphasis is placed on the death and resurrection of Christ. These two events are viewed in Scripture as two parts of one event and mark the coming together and completion of God’s plan for a new humanity that has been truly created in His image.The death and resurrection marked the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose in creating the new being (Eph. 3:11).
The mystery of the new being is that His body is made of many members (Eph. 3:6). Hence, we see in the death of Christ, the death of the old humanity, and in His resurrection, the creation of the new humanity. In fact, the whole thrust of Romans chapter six is that if you are really a part of this new humanity, your life will reflect it. In this chapter, Paul points to Christian baptism as a sign, promise, and a seal on God’s part that one has been united with Christ and will share in His resurrection. On man’s part it is a sign, promise, and seal that
one has entered into solidarity with Jesus and His people. Our baptism into Christ is a proclamation that we have entered the history of the one representative man, sharing not only in His history and suffering (cross), but also His future (Gal. 3:26-27). In the Christ event, the history of God and the story of man merge into one story and one history, forming one new creation, a new creation where there is no need for religion (mediator) for God is present in the person of His Son (Rev. 21:1-4, 22-27).
We have seen that the goal of all religion is the oneness of God and man. We have also seen that only Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that goal, for it is in Him that man is bound back to God in an eternal oneness. If this is the case, the Christ event marked the death or end of all religion (Rom. 10:4). As it did two thousand years ago, the death and resurrection of Christ still demands a radical way of looking at all things anew. In fact, it brings into question many aspects of the very religion that now wears the name of the crucified one. At the very least, it demands that we reflect anew on the meaning of the Christ event. For a generation, which is so close to the coming of its Lord, does not the resurrection of Christ demand that we see Him at the door at all times? Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
From Jesus to Religion
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1Tim 4:1-2).
Our title reflects the movement of history – the history of the Jesus movement and how a movement that began with the revelation of God in His Son Jesus Christ could grow into a religion that represents the very opposite of what the original revelation represented. In this chapter, we will observe this movement from revelation to religion by tracing the addition of foreign symbols, as well as noting the changes in the original symbols and their meanings.
We begin with the master or central symbol of the Christian movement. This symbol, of course, is Jesus Himself. Jesus not only lived physically, but He also lived symbolically (Luke 2:34). He was the symbol of God amongst us. Karl Rahner said, “The Logos is the symbol of the Father.” We might say that He is the self-revelation or self-expression of God Himself. Therefore, the very nature of God is expressed symbolically in and through Jesus.
In his book, The Power of Symbols in Religion and Culture, F.W. Dillistone points to Christ as a central symbol of the Christian faith. “In my view it is both fitting and true to the witness of New Testament writers to confess Jesus as the central symbol of God. ‘Centre’ is a category which has played a dual role in human affairs. Both in a circle and in a straight line, the centre is a point of major significance; society is normally ordered from a central place: a covenant or agreement between two parties also finds its guarantee through joint assent and signature at a central place. Jesus, as symbol, becomes the centre in both ways. It is the confession of Christians of all ages that Jesus Himself, revealed through the words and life-patterns of His followers and interpreted to successive generations by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was the central symbol, potentially uniting the whole of humanity to God Himself.”
The Immediacy of God
It is also important for us to understand the basic meaning of the symbolism of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ presence in the world was a symbol that God Himself was now present in the world of men. This is not to say that God was not actually present in Christ, but is a way to look beyond the physical presence to the spiritual meaning. Matthew captures the very essence of the symbolic meaning of Jesus when he records the announcement of the angel to Joseph. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). The implications of God being among us are staggering, for it implies that all the symbols that mediated a transcended God are no longer needed. The God of the other world has come into the world of men in the person of His son. Therefore, the religious symbols that mediate His presence in the past are no longer needed. The coming of God among His people in the person of Jesus has rendered all the mediating symbolism of religions obsolete, old, and destined to vanish away (Heb. 8:13). Thus, God’s people now have direct access and fellowship with the Father in Jesus Christ. Hence, all symbols of the Christian faith must symbolize the presence of God among His people in their ordinary and everyday experiences. Any symbol that does not must be viewed suspiciously as a possible subversion of the faith and a distancing of God from His people. All such symbols are questionable and should be scrutinized to see if they belong in the Christian movement. These symbols surely should never be bound on other believers as symbols of God’s acceptance or symbols of acceptable fellowship that mediates between believers.
In view of this, the entire enterprise of religion itself, along with its sacred symbols of mediation might be brought into question. At the very least, we must begin to view religion with a suspicion that it may not be everything it seems to be. In fact, if we are right, it is the very opposite of what it appears to be. It appears, at least to the majority, to be a symbol of the presence of God. However, in reality it is a symbol of the absence and negation of the true God, who no longer dwells in the sacred or holy, but rather in the everyday and ordinary. Keeping with this line of thought, we could say that religion itself is a symbol and it is a symbol that speaks. When it speaks, it speaks of a God who is out there somewhere in another world, a God who is wholly other and removed from the world of men; a God who is distant from His people and who must be approached in and through the sacred. Yet, when we turn to revelation, we find that God is no longer to be found in the sacred symbols of religion, but rather in the symbols of His one and only Son Jesus Christ and His Spirit that abides with and in His Spirit-filled people. In these two living symbols, God has drawn near to His people in the everyday for everyone. There is no longer a need for believers to approach God through the sacred symbols of religion. Though religious symbols may induce feelings of other-worldliness, they cannot and do not draw us closer to God. In the end, all religious symbols other than Jesus and the Spirit, will distance people from God. For in the end, at least for the majority of men, all religious symbolism slips into idolatry.
When the apostle John saw the New Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down out of heaven, he proclaimed, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). John’s words become pregnant with meaning, when one understands that for the Jews, the temple was the master or central symbol of their religion and mediated the presence of God. One implication of this is that in the city of God there are no religious symbols that mediate the presence of God. For in that city, there is no need for religion as a mediator for God, because God is present in the person of His Son. That city is now represented on earth by the body of Christ (Gal. 4:26). The temple or sacred place has now been replaced with the symbol of Jesus and His Spirit-filled body (1 Cor. 3:16, 2 Cor. 6:14-18). Hence, the symbols of religion have no place in the city of God or the Christian movement. Today the church as the body of Christ, created by the Word, imbibed with the Spirit is now the master symbol of the living God’s presence. However, the church can only be this symbol as long as it is walking in the power of the Spirit and is enlivened by the life of its Lord. When a church loses the Spirit of Jesus, it becomes nothing more than a lifeless symbol that relies on ritual and form, which are nothing more than hollow and empty symbols of religion. When the church loses the Spirit, it becomes a lifeless institution that tries to invoke the grace of God through its ritual and its ostentatiousness. In this, it does not hear God nor does it see God in the ordinary and everyday. In its lifelessness, it becomes nothing more than a mute idol that neither sees nor hears.
In addition to Christ and the Spirit representing the real presence of God among His people, these living symbols also represent the unity and oneness of God and man. In Christ, God and man have become one. The implication of this is, if God and man are one in Christ, this oneness should overflow into the relationship that man has with his fellowmen. Consequently, Christ is not only the symbol of the presence of God but also of reconciliation between men and the Old Testament idea of shalom. “He is our peace (shalom) who…has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:1415). In view of this, we might state the following axiom: Any symbol or an interpretation of a symbol that promotes or stands for division has been misinterpreted or is an unauthorized addition to the Christian faith. All authorized symbols rightly interpreted will point to Christ and promote the unity of the Spirit.
Moreover, any symbol that diverts attention away from the center symbol of Jesus must also be rejected. Even the symbol of the Spirit must point to the central symbol of Jesus Christ. Any theology that makes the Spirit or anything else the center must be rejected as a subversion of the faith. It is only when men have focused on something other than Jesus that division can creep into the Christian movement. In fact, all the sects of Christendom propagate them-selves by focusing on one or more symbols other than Christ. If these symbols are removed, there remains no reason for the existence of the sect. Therefore, we find that the membership of most sects have become propagators and protectors of religious symbols instead of proclaiming faith in Christ. In doing this, they have caused unprecedented division. However, in doing this, they end up diverting attention away from the central symbol of Christ to lesser symbols or they relegate the symbol of Christ to the same level of a lesser symbol. Though they vehemently deny this, their actions speak symbolically louder than their words. They separate and divide over symbols other than Jesus. They spend more time talking and studying about lesser symbols than Jesus. If Jesus is the central symbol, why do the churches spend so much of their time talking about the lesser symbols of the Bible, such as men, creeds, morality, prophecy, and the like, often without even showing how they relate to Jesus? Without Jesus being the center, people will soon find themselves living from the flesh [law], filled with division and strife. Only when a group has Jesus as the center, will it become a sign and a symbol of the Spirit of Christ and unity in the Christian community.
The Distancing and Subversion of God
In view of what has been said, I think it is fair to say that religion is like a veil of symbols, which creates a darkness that hides God and shields the people from His presence. In other words, religion removes God from the everyday and distances Him from His people. He is then no longer viewed as being among His people, but rather in some distant heaven. His only presence on earth is seen in religion and its sacred symbols of mediation. We can gather from the popularity of religion that many men do not want to live in an unmediatedIt’s state in the presence of the true God. So they lock Him away in their sacred boxes of sacred places, people, times, and books. For if they can put God back into the sacred, then they can live with the illusion that He does not know what they are doing in the everyday. This allows them to live in two worlds – the sacred and the secular while living by two different standards. However, any god who can be put into our little religious boxes is not the God you read about in the Scriptures and surely is not a God, who can help us in time of need. The god in the box, the God of all religion, becomes an idol; an idol, which Christ came to destroy.
I have charged the Christian religion with the heinous crime of subverting the revelation of God. I have also established the motive. That is, man does not want to live in the presence of revelation. For he does not want to conform to
its norms, nor does he want to continually stand under its judgment. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light (revelation) because their deeds were evil” (John. 3:19). Though men hate revelation and refuse to conform to it, at the same time, they know that they cannot live without it, for then they would have no hope. So man finds himself in a paradox where he cannot live with or without revelation. How does he solve the problem? He solves the problem by watering down, changing, and subverting revelation to where it feels comfortable to live with. These changes usually take the form of changes in the meaning of symbols or the addition of unauthorized symbols. In adding unauthorized symbols man sets himself up as the judge of revelation instead of allowing revelation to sit in judgment of him.
In addition, he usurps the authority of God Himself and in actuality, sits in judgment of God. In this, man commits the religious sin of playing god before God. Needless to say, God is not impressed with this parody. It is here that the atheist shows himself more righteous than the religious man. For the atheist openly rejects revelation, while the religious man knavishly subverts it in the name of God.
In the next chapter we will begin to trace this subversion of revelation by observing the changes and additions in the symbols found in the Christian movement. As we trace this subversion, we need to remember that these changes did not happen overnight. Many of them took decades, even centuries, to creep into the faith and often these changes did not go unchallenged by some of the church fathers. However, the forces behind these changes were too powerful and the majority of the church found itself being swept along by a tidal wave of change and subversion. Even so, there has always remained a group in the church that has resisted this subversion. These were often the ones labeled radical or even heretical.
A Forest of Symbols
“ Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8-10).
One of the main linguistic tools we will be using in our study of the contrast between religion and revelation is that of the symbol. In recent years, scholars have come to understand the importance of language in all areas of life. Language is the key that unlocks the door to what it means to be truly human. Along with this increased interest and understanding of language, there has been a corresponding increased interest and understanding of the importance of the uses of symbols in human communications. Increasingly, many scholars are coming to believe that symbols are not only the key to understanding much of the human language, but also the key to understanding the whole of the human enterprise. The importance of symbols can be seen in the statement of one author when he says, “To live is to live symbolically.” He said this because he realized humans live in a forest of symbols. In fact, he believes they are symbols themselves. Our very consciousness and identity are created and shaped by the symbols of our culture. Bernard Cook adds to our understanding of the importance of symbols when he says,
“For it is now becoming clearer that symbol is not something that humans use occasionally and for the most part aesthetically, even artificially. Rather, symbol is of the essence of all thought and all language. Even more basically, the very model of existing, which is distinctive of humans is symbolic; we are more than ‘symbol-making beings’ as Cassirer and Langer have insisted, We exist symbolically because the spiritual dimension of our being ‘speaks’ itself-though never with complete satisfaction-in our bodily-ness.”
“All this impinges strongly on the study of symbols, for inner consciousness, even on the level of the subconscious, is shaped and animated by symbols. More than that, the entire process of consciousness being translated into communication as a basis for society is a process of symbolizing. And conversely, the shaping influence of culture and society upon an individual’s inner existence is exerted through symbols of one sort or another.” The Distancing of God by Bernard J. Cooke (page 296, 299)
From Cooke, we can gather somewhat the importance of symbols, but we have yet to define a symbol. A symbol may be defined as “a word or object or thing or action or event or pattern or person or concrete particular…Representing or suggesting or signifying or veiling…Something greater or transcendent or ultimate: a meaning, a reality, an ideal, a value, an achievement, a belief, a community, a concept, an institution, a state of affairs.” The Power of Symbols in Religion and Culture F.W. Dillistone (page 13)
In the same section, Dillistone goes on to point out that the function of a symbol is to bridge the gulf between the world of the abstract and the concrete. In religion, the symbol is used to bridge or bring together physical facts and metaphysical truth without compromising either. Therefore, symbols are used to explain the unexplainable, yet never completely. Thus, the symbol always involves mystery, wonder, and paradoxes. This may help us to understand why God’s final and complete revelation of Himself is a person—in other words, a living symbol and not a written law. This could also be the reason why the New Testament witness has come to us in the form of story and not law as the Old Testament Torah. The God of Heaven and Earth could never reveal Himself through propositional truth. We cannot reduce God to a logic syllogism or lock Him in the narrow chambers of human reason and imagination. The only way one will come to know God is through reflecting on the symbol that mediates His image and presence, that is, His Son Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, sometimes this one true symbol of God gets lost in a forest of religious symbols that we humans have made. I would like to think that man has done this out of ignorance. However, both Old and New Testaments bear witness to the fact that man has knavishly and knowingly subverted the symbols of God. The reason for this is obvious; man does not want to live in the presence of God nor in the presence of the pristine revelation of Jesus Christ. The simple truth is that man does not love the truth. He loves darkness instead of the light. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John. 3:19). In this passage, light stands for revelation, and Jesus confirms the fact that the majority do not want to live in the presence of revelation. So what does man do? He hides from it in a forest of religion and its symbols. We see this rejection of revelation in the story of Adam. When Adam sinned, he also hid in the forest from God. In this act, Adam prefigures the entire human race that would hide from God in its religious systems and symbols.
However, man’s hide-and-seek game with God has far-reaching consequences. For the forest he hides in, not only hides him from God, but also from his fellow man and his very self. The forest divides men religiously, politically, and culturally. When the apostle Paul speaks about the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), he was making reference to the forest of religious symbols that separated Jews and Gentiles. He points out to his readers that this forest of symbols has been done away with in Christ. In Christ, God has cut down the forest of religious symbols that keeps people divided religiously. He did this by replacing, or in many cases, subverting the existing symbols by changing one or more of their levels of meaning. All the symbols in the old order that spoke of the presence of God or symbolized His presence were subverted to point toward Christ as their fulfillment and their end. The master symbols of religion that fit this category are the symbols of mediation such as sacred laws, places, times, and priesthood. Before the coming of Christ, these religious symbols stood for or symbolized the presence of God and the unity of His people. However, after Jesus’ coming, they stood for the absence of God and division, which is the very antithesis of God. These religious symbols still stand as a dividing wall of hostility between religious people.
In the fore mentioned case of the hostility between Jews and Gentiles, it was the sacred “master” symbols of Law, sacred days, priesthood, and sacred places that formed the dividing wall of hostility. Jews could easily accept these symbols. However, Gentiles could not easily accept them for they had no inherent meaning to them because these symbols were tied directly to the history of the Jewish people. But now that God had invited the world to become His people, the symbols of God’s acceptance and presence would have to change. The new master symbols would be Christ Himself and His spirit-filled people. In order to do this, God would have to create a new history with new symbols. This He did by raising His Son from the dead. In this mighty act, God created a new world and a new humanity. He invites all of humanity to join His Son in a new exodus out of the old order into the new; an exodus out of religion into Christ. This exodus will be completed when His Son returns from on high to lead His people into the glorious freedom of the children of God. “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John. 3:2). When Israel left Egypt in the first exodus of God’s people, there were many who were intimidated by their new freedom. Thus, they wanted to return to the security of bondage in Egypt. If you remember, this happened when Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Because he tarried too long, the people longed to return to Egypt and its gods. Was this not a foreshadowing of what would happen in the Christian movement? When Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended to the Father, he inaugurated a new exodus, an exodus out of religion. However, like the Hebrews, we find the people (Christians) were intimidated by the freedom they had in Christ and grew anxious over the fact that their Lord had tarried longer than they had expected. So many of them went back to religion and to the making of religious symbols, very similar to how the Hebrews had made the golden calf. God’s call today is for our generation of Christians to take up where the first generation of Christian left off: that is, in an exodus out of religion into the freedom of the children of God.
As we look anew at God’s new master symbols, we find that both of these, Christ and His people, are what we might call living symbols which are the most powerful symbols, for they are flexible and can fit into any cultural venue. This flexibility should be expected, seeing that God has invited the world to join His history. God’s history is no longer a history of a people, but rather a history of one man who now represents the new humanity that has been created by His resurrection from the dead. God now invites all to join in the history of His Son, which He is taking on to perfection in Christ.
Moreover, these living symbols of Christ and His people have the power to impart life, which other symbols do not have. “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (John. 6:63). No symbol, even the sub-symbols of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, have any life in themselves but rather point to the work of Christ and His life giving Spirit. Only Christ and the Spirit have the power to impart life. Even the symbol of the Bible apart from the Spirit has no power to convey life (2 Cor. 3:6). Regrettably, the church has often eclipsed the quickening symbols of Christ and His Spirit with the lifeless lesser symbols of ritual and form, at the same time claiming that this is Christianity perfected.
The implications of all this are incredible. The symbol of Christ among His people symbolizes that God is among His people. Not only is He among His people, but also He has accepted them in their sin, forgiven them and has given them the Spirit to deliver them from the bondage of sin and religion. This was all enacted and symbolized in the life of Jesus when He ate and fellowship at the table with sinners. Therefore, the symbol of Jesus in the world is symbolizing that the world has become a theater of God being with man and for man. Moreover, the symbol of Jesus as the Godman symbolizes and foreshadows the unity of God and man in the new humanity; Jesus Himself being the first fruits of that new humanity (1 Cor. 15:22). Therefore, in the resurrection of Jesus we have a promise and a preview of where God is taking humanity. “For we shall be like him” (1 John. 3:2).
Another incredible implication is that man no longer has to hide from God in a forest of religious symbols, for he no longer has to try to justify himself before God or man. For in Christ, God has accepted him and forgiven him, not because of his religiosity, but because of God’s grace and the work of Christ. Because God has delivered him from the need to be religious, He in the same act has broken down the religious wall that separates man. Therefore, man has been reconciled not only to God though Jesus, but also to one another. Consequently, we must conclude that the division in the Christian church is an indication of just how far religion is from God. The Christian church, especially in America, is the direct opposite of revelation and its division is a symbol to all the world of its disobedience and its distance from God.
Here we need to ask this question. If Christ has removed the symbols of religion that divide men, what would be the consequence of reinstating the old symbols or symbols like them? The answer is obvious: division. When men have symbols in their belief system, other than divinely authorized ones, there will be division. For people will insist that others acknowledge their symbols in order for them to be acceptable. This is why the reinstating of unauthorized religious symbols is condemned so strongly in the New Testament. In the book of Galatians we find a group of Christians contemplating reinstating the symbol of Law into the Christian movement. In turn, the apostle Paul warns them, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal. 5:4). Not only does Paul give this astringent rebuke, he goes on to reinforce the fact that the main symbol in the Christian faith is Jesus Christ. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor un-circumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:4-6). In this text we find that the only authorized symbols in the Christian movement are Christ, faith, and love. The symbol of circumcision, which is the symbol of the Law, has been negated in Christ. Law is never unauthorized Christian symbol, unless it is used as a symbol of Christ Himself, for He is the new Torah.
All other symbols of law must be rejected. Symbols like creeds, human traditions, and theological systems must not be imposed on believers as law. Even the New Testament Scripture must not be symbolized as law, for it is pure grace when mixed with a spirit of faith. Those who symbolize or image the New Testament Scripture as law will find it very difficult not to lapse into legalism. For the power of the symbol will negate and overcome any verbal effect to proclaim freedom from law. The symbol of law is one of the most powerful religious symbols because it has a cosmic counterpart behind it and is linked with the spiritual powers of sin and death (Rom. 7:7-25, 8:2, 2 Cor. 3:6-18, 1 Cor. 15:56,57, Col 2:13-15). Therefore, the symbol of law should be dealt with thoughtfully in the Christian movement, lest we crucify the Lord anew and insult the Spirit of grace (Heb. 6:4-6, 10:29).
There also are some psychological consequences to reinstating religious symbols into the faith of Christ. The most obvious would be that the more religious symbols a man has in his belief system, the more exclusive and rigid his religion will be. The danger is that this forest of religious symbols will become so thick that it will blind him to all new truth. Most religious people, especially those that are exclusionist, have layers of religious symbols that protect them from revelation and separate them from their fellow-man. The religious man fears revelation because it will strip away all the false symbols that he has trusted. It leaves him naked before God, stripped of all his self-righteousness. In this context, self-righteousness could be defined as all the religious symbols that men hide in, such as symbols that allow them to feel secure and righteous. The traditionalists hide behind the symbols of ritual. The fundamentalists hide behind the multi-level symbol of the Bible and the true church. Nevertheless, no matter how hard the religious man may try, he cannot hide his humanness behind these symbols because God is continually destroying them and exposing man’s nakedness. It is here, in his nakedness, that the religious man has the possibility of coming to faith and being clothed by God in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, nothing hinders authentic faith more than religion. In a true sense, religion is a vaccination against revelation.
In our quest for a better understanding of the distinction between religion and revelation, the symbol will help us immensely, for it will allow us to look at things from a different perspective. Most importantly for our study, the symbol will help us trace the evolution of the revelation of Christ from a simple way of life into a complex religious system. We can do this by noting when and why new symbols were introduced into the Christian movement. Through analyzing the introduction and meaning of new symbols added to the movement, we will be able to see the subtle shift in theology away from revelation to religion. We will begin that study in our next chapter
This book is a study about the phenomena we call religion. It is a study in contrast, for throughout this study we will be contrasting religion in its many forms with the revelation of God we see in Christ and His teachings. For some, this will be confusing and even unsettling because of the many presuppositions people may hold. Some Christians have never looked at their religion in contrast to Christ. They have taken it for granted that the revelation of God in Christ and the Christian religion were one and the same. For those who have made that assumption, I hope this book will serve as a catalyst to further study and reflection.
It is also my hope that this essay will be read widely by the various sects of Christendom who have taken their religion so seriously that they are judging one another as unworthy of the kingdom. In reading this, I hope that one will come to realize that religion must decrease if Christ is to increase. It is my prayer that these sects will come to see religion is the middle wall of hostility that keeps believers in Christ divided and in seeing this, they will begin to discern the difference between religion and faith in Christ.
For many, the hardest thing to do will be to draw a clear distinction between faith in Christ and religion. The line between faith and religion is often ambiguous. However, I believe with
honest reflection, the distinction will be seen by those willing to face the consequence of knowing the difference. Some will reject the difference because they sense the anxiety that comes from trying to live without religion. It is much easier to walk by religion than revelation. Religion has the tendency of taking all ambiguity and uncertainty out of life, and even out of God. Living without the mediation of religion is to live in a state of constant anxiety and uncertainty. Therefore, needless to say, a life without religion has the propensity to help one to trust more in God.
The difference between faith and religion has always been noted by some of the best thinkers in and outside of Christianity. Karl Barth, speaking about the Christian religion said, “This religion, too, stands under the judgment that religion is unbelief…This judgment means that all this Christianity of ours, and all the details of it are not as much what they ought to be and pretend to be a work of faith, and therefore of obedience to the divine revelation [Jesus]. What we have here is in its own way—a different way from that of other religions, but no less seriously-unbelief, i.e. opposition to the divine revelation, and therefore active idolatry and self-righteousness.” Church Dogmatics (1.2 page 327)
The renowned atheist Nietzsche, in speaking about modern Christianity, said,
“One should not confuse Christianity as a historical reality with that one root that its name calls to mind: the other roots from which it has grown up have been far more powerful. It is an unexampled misuse of words when such manifestations of decay and abortions as “Christian church,” “Christian faith” and “Christian life” label themselves with that holy name. What did Christ deny? Everything that is today called Christian. The entire Christian teaching as to what shall be believed, the entire Christian “truth,” is idle falsehood and deception: and precisely the opposite of what inspired the Christian movement in the beginning.
Precisely that which is Christian in the ecclesiastical sense is anti-Christian in essence: things and people instead of symbols; history instead of eternal facts; forms, rites, dogmas instead of a way of life. Utter indifference to dogmas, cults, priests, church, and theology is Christian.” The Will to Power (page 98)
We may not be able to understand everything that Nietzsche is inferring, but we can see that he is clearly making a distinction between Christianity and the revelation of God in Christ.
Next, let us look at what Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish Christian philosopher has to say about modern Christianity, which he refers to as Christendom,
“Christendom is an effort of the human race to go back to walking on all fours, to get rid of Christianity, to do it knavishly under the pretext that this is Christianity, claiming that it is Christianity perfected. The Christianity of
Christendom takes away from Christianity the offense, the paradox, etc., and instead of that introduces probability, the plainly comprehensible. That is, it transforms Christianity into something entirely different from what it is in the New Testament, yea, into exactly the opposite; and this is the Christianity of Christendom, of us men. The Instant (5,2).
A modern day disciple of Kierkegaard, Jacques Ellul, adds these provocative thoughts:“How has it come about that the development of Christianity and the church has given birth to a society, a civilization, a culture that are completely opposite to what we read in the Bible, to what is indisputably the text of the law, the prophets, Jesus, and Paul? I say advisedly “completely opposite.” There is not just contradiction on one point but on all points. On the one hand, Christianity has been accused of a whole list of faults, crimes, and deceptions that are nowhere to be found in the original text and inspiration. On the other hand, revelation has been progressively modeled and reinterpreted according to the practice of Christianity and the church. Critics have been unwilling to consider anything but this practice, this concrete reality, absolutely refusing to refer to the truth of what is said. There is not just deviation but radical and essential contradiction, or real subversion.” The Subversion of Christianity (page 1)
“Gandhi could discern the tension between Jesus and Christianity more clearly than Christians. On one occasion a missionary inquired, ‘Mr. Gandhi, what is the greatest enemy of Christ in India today?’ Without a moment’s hesitation Gandhi gave the answer, ‘Christianity!’” Verdict (1987 essay 31)
With such a great cloud of witnesses who seem to be saying that the faith of Christ is something other than modern Christianity, it would seem wise for us to at least give this some consideration and put our own faith to the acid test of truth. In writing on the subject of religion, there is a problem with the term itself. “Any discussion of religion in its plurality of forms is inevitably beset by problems of terminology… Accordingly we have to improvise, sometimes using words in stretched senses to cover two or more related ideas-and thereby risking the wrath of those who can see the semantic stretching but not the communicational need that it serves.” John Hick, “An Interpretation of Religion” (page 9). It would be impossible to give the reader a definition of how we will use the term religion in this study. The study itself defines the term for it is a study in contrast.
It is my belief that this intensive study is of an utmost importance for the Christian movement. In the West, our world views are changing at a rapid pace, and traditional institutions that support the established world views are being questioned and put to the test. Much of traditional Christianity and its institutions, when weighed in the balance, will be found wanting. For this we should praise God, for they never truly reflected the revelation of God in Christ.
The only regret is that it is not Christians who can take the credit for their demise. But Christians can look on this time as an opportunity to share with people the revelation of Christ. This is the time to free the living Christ from the wrappings of worn out old religious forms and traditions. It is the time to turn from our lifeless creeds and theology to the living Christ. It is time to hold out to the world the true and living revelation of God. However, this will be impossible unless we can make a clear distinction between revelation and the worn out forms of religion. We hope that this study will help in making this needed distinction.
To be Continued
Lyle Duell Lebanon, Maine lyleduell.me email@example.com
Did Christianity Fall Out of Heaven into America?
Much of American Christianity is totally disconnected from its roots in a very similar way that many Americans are ignorant of their roots. It seems that Americans in general are illiterate of history. In politics, it means that Americans can easily be moved away from their founding principles without even knowing it. In American Christianity, the same thing is true. Because of their ignorance of church history, American Christians have and are moving away from the historical faith very easily. Many of them think that their faith originated with Jesus and was just transferred to America. In this, they jump over 2000 years of history, which has shaped their faith. Now hear the shocker. Many of their beliefs did originate in America and reflect its values more than the values of Jesus and His apostles. There are a number of American religions that would find it hard to trace many of their beliefs or practices to the church in Jerusalem. However, how would you know this if you know nothing about church history?
The church that Jesus built did not have its beginning in America. Its beginnings were in Jerusalem where its leader laid the foundation by appointing twelve men to take His faith to the world. These men were called apostles and took the words of their Master to the world. They planted churches everywhere and taught them everything Jesus told them to teach His disciples.[i] The apostles of Jesus gave the early church the whole counsel of God.[ii] In this, the apostles were aided by the Holy Spirit who helped them to remember the teachings of Jesus.[iii]
Through this process of revelation, the Christian faith was delivered to the first-century church in its completeness. It was delivered once and for all to the church.[iv] The apostle Peter told the first-century church that they had everything they needed to know for life and godliness.[v] The apostle Paul said he preached the whole counsel of God to the church.
We can gather from this that anything that is taught which is newer than the New Testament Scriptures could not possibly be a part of the faith which was once for all delivered to the church by Jesus and His apostles. This should raise questions about any teaching that is newer than the New Testament teachings. If it did not come from Jesus or the apostles, where did it originate? The obvious answer is that it had to come from some other source. It was predicted by the apostle Paul that men would arise in the church and lead gullible and ignorant disciples away from the true teachings of the apostles, for the purpose of making themselves important in the eyes of men.[vi] Moreover, he talks of a time when a large number of Christians would gather around these false teachers. These false teachers would be men who would preach what people wanted to hear to make them feel good, and their preaching would amount to nothing but myths.[vii]
Much of Western religion can trace its roots back to men other than Jesus Christ and His apostles. Even the Roman Church is an assortment of innovators, e.g., Augustine. At best, you could say that Catholicism was made up of three roots, which grew up together to form one institution, those three roots being Judaism, paganism, and Christianity. It takes a keen mind and a discerning spirit to be able to filter out of the Roman system that which is truly Christian. Of course, Catholicism is one of the systems that justifies itself by claiming that it is Christianity perfected. Its main justification for this progressive belief is its doctrine of the infallibility of the church and a continuous revelation that perfects it. The same doctrine is used by a number of Protestant groups to justify their innovations to the faith. Of course, if you know the Bible and early church history there is no authority for the doctrine of the perfecting of the church or for its infallibility.
Now the question arises, does modern Christianity have to model the church we read about in the Bible? Some might raise the question as to whether or not there is a model of the church in the Scripture. My reply to this question is that it depends on your concept of the church. If you think of the church as an institution, the answer is no. However, if you think of the church as a living organism, the answer is yes. The church in the Bible is like a family that is alive to each of its members and is especially alive to its Head, who is Jesus Christ. It looks to its Head in all things and from its Head to receive all things. Its purpose is to glorify God through its Head, Jesus Christ. Through the power of the Spirit, it points all men to Christ and only to Christ. There is no room in the church for men who are trying to make themselves central by exalting themselves or their teaching. The chief characteristic of the church in Scripture is that it is Christ-centered. And close behind that is its members love for one another.
You enter this family like you enter your physical family by being born into it. You are born into it by a new birth, which is made up of two elements: one of the outward signs of baptism in water and the other the receiving of the Spirit of Christ.[viii] Baptism is an immersion into Christ and identification with Christ and His death and resurrection.[ix] One of the unique things about this family is that it gathers weekly to celebrate the great feast, which will take place when its resurrected Lord returns from heaven. The feast proclaims His death, resurrection, and His second coming. All true believers love to be there for this feast because Jesus promises to meet them when they come together to celebrate the supper. The tradition of coming together on the first day of the week goes all the way back to the apostles[x] and is confirmed by the early Christian fathers.[xi] The ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two of the fundamental marks of the New Testament church.
Like any family, there are family characteristics that all of its members share. In the family of Christ these are very plain. Each member of His family looks a lot like Jesus. Now, I am not talking about physical appearance, but the character of a person. One other rule of the family is the older you are in the faith, the more you should look like Christ. Still another rule of the family is that it is committed to knowing the apostles’ doctrine, which is the doctrine of Christ.[xii]
I have been told that every essay should end with a call to action. Well, my call to action is for Christians to learn more about their historical roots. The church has 2000 years of history. That history starts in the New Testament and continues up to the present day. It is filled with glorious, exciting things along with many shameful things that have been done by those claiming to be Christians. However, history is history, and we are to study and learn from it. It has been said that the one thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. Now, there may be some truth in that for many. However, I believe that the wise do learn from history and that history can make one wise.
For those interested in a further study of the New Testament Church, start with the New Testament book of Acts which is a short history of the first-century church. Then find a short history of the church on Amazon. If you are interested in checking a particular doctrine as to whether or not it was taught by the early church (100 A.D.-300 A.D.) you can read the early Christian fathers. However, reading all of the source documents of the early fathers is a horrendous job that few are up to. I would recommend that you try some abbreviated versions, which trace various doctrines that have been taught in the history of the church. There is David W. Bercot, Dictionary of Early Christian Belief that references 700 topics discussed by the early church fathers. Another is Early Christians Speak by Everett Ferguson. For those looking for a scholarly and in-depth study I would suggest, The Church by Hans Kung. Kung is a Catholic theologian, which makes his book most impressive, since he sticks extremely close to what the New Testament teaches about the church in spite of the fact that it contradicts his own church.
Enjoy your study. LD
[i] Matt 28:18-20
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
[ii] Acts 20:27-28
For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. NKJV
[iii] John 16:12-15
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” NIV
[iv] Jude 3
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. NIV
[v] 2 Peter 1:3
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. NIV
[vi] Acts 20:29-31
29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
[vii] 2 Tim 4:3-4
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.NIV
[viii] John 3:3-5
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” NIV
[ix] Rom 6:1-4
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. NIV
[x] Acts 20:7-8
On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. NIV
[xi] The reference in the early Fathers to Christian coming together on Sunday or what they called the eighth day are so numerous that I do not have room to quote them. You can find them in the book, Early Christians Speak by Everett Ferguson.
[xii] Acts 2:42-43
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.