Blurring the Distinctives
Donald L. Norbie, Greeley, Colorado, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
'When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them . . . You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way . . . Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it', Deut. 12. 29-32.
There was a constant tendency in Israel to conform to the practices of the nations around them. There was not an outright rejection of their Jehovah God but an introduction of heathen customs and practices. This the prophets warned against throughout Israel's history. Israel was to be different and distinct from the nations surrounding them.
The church has had the same tendency throughout the centuries. The cry of the apostle Paul was, 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you', 2 Cor. 6. 17.
After the first century, the churches as a whole began to slide into conformity with the world, adopting heathen practices into their worship and doctrine. This corruption accelerated after the conversion of Constantine and the legalisation of Christianity.
By the time of the Reformation the gospel of grace was buried under ritualism and perverted church dogma. Salvation was viewed as a life-long process of keeping the rules of the church and at death one went to Purgatory to atone for the rest of his sins. The gospel of God's grace had been forgotten except for small, scattered pockets of devout believers.
The Reformation rediscovered the gospel of God's grace and proclaimed it faithfully. Unfortunately, many of those reformers did not make a clean break with all Romish practices. They carried over into their churches the teaching of infant baptism, the clergy-laity concept and the desire to have a state church.
Throughout church history there have been repeated movements to return to the simplicity of the early church. Such have believed the teaching and example of the apostolic church should be emulated. This example was viewed not as an historical oddity but as the norm for churches in every age.
After dealing with many matters of church conduct, Paul wrote, 'If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord', 1 Cor. 14. 37. Paul did not say that these things were suggestions or his opinions, but the Lord's commandments. They are still in force today.
In the British Isles in the early 1800's there was a revival of interest in following the simplicity of the apostolic church. This movement has since spread throughout the world. There was a rejection of denominationalism with all of its divisions and an insistence that the church is one, made up of all true Christians, Rom. 12. 4-5. The clergy/laity distinction was denied; all believers are priests and are gifted by God, 1 Pet. 2. 5, 9; Rom. 12. 6-8. The Lord's Supper was seen as central to worship, with opportunity for the believer’s priesthood to function, 1 Cor. 11. 23-34. All believers were expected to be witnessing to the gospel. Those who were called of God to 'full time work' went out in faith and were supported by the generous giving of God's people in accordance with such scriptures as Philippians 4. 15-16.
It was a radical movement, radical in its desire to obey God's word, radical in its faith and fervency. God has blessed this movement over the past 175 years. But it is difficult to maintain fervent purity and scriptural simplicity. Spiritual zeal tends to cool and men try to compensate with organisation and ritual. Worldliness can drain spiritual enthusiasm.
Some assemblies having origins from the movement begun in the 1800's may be tempted to look at today's large churches with many members and become envious. Perhaps they should be our model now? People are used to having a 'pastor' who is hired and can be fired. Why not hire a good preacher to lead the church? Perhaps we should stop emphasising the importance of the Lord's Supper; it is not appreciated by all church members. Perhaps have it as an optional service in a smaller room for those who are more 'traditional'.
The feminist movement is strong. Should we now adopt an egalitarian approach to our services, letting women lead in the meetings. Some would also suggest women elders. This will make us more acceptable to the world around. And so, some assemblies are becoming more and more like Bible churches or community churches. They are not that different or distinctive any more. They may hire a preacher and call him 'pastor’. The Lord's Supper is minimised and women take more leadership.
When this happens the assembly has become just another nice, evangelical church. Now you are competing with all the other churches for members. Unless you have better facilities and a more polished programme, why should anyone come to your church? You are not offering a different product. Would it not be simpler for you to join one of the established churches and strengthen it?
Or maybe it is time to restudy the scriptures and to renew your convictions about principles for the church from God's holy word and just trust Him for the results.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Donald Norbie is in fellowship with the assembly in Greeley, Colorado, and is a commended full-time worker. A regular contributor to Precious Seed and other assembly magazines his ministry is widely appeciated throughout N. America and the UK.