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Churches Seeking Truth as Communities of Faith

By Jon Zens

In this editorial I would like to make some structural comments now heavy on my heart that will set the stage for the articles in this issue of Searching Together.

No one human effort can say everything that needs to be said in addressing the body of Christ.  But I do believe that the material in the following pages is of the utmost significance and importance to the churches at this time.  Nothing could be more gratifying than to see the saints grasp these principles, act upon them, and see the blessings and growth that would follow.  But in pursuing these principles there will always be tensions that will test our commitment to Christ’s body, and temptations to swing to one side or the other of the tension.

1. The tension between the individual and body aspects of the Christian life.

There is a beautiful balance in the body of Christ which is illustrated in the working of the human body.  The body cannot function without the individual parts, and the parts have no significance by themselves, they need the input of the whole (1 Corinthians12:12, 14).  Each unit is unique and cannot be swallowed up by the whole, but the parts can only grow and function in connection with the community.  Body-less individualism has been a plague in the church, but at times body emphasis has stifled the individual’s value.

But, without debate, we must approach the individual Christian through the bodyWe are “called” as individuals (1 Corinthians 7:18); but our very “regeneration” isnot individualistic but corporate — for we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free, male or female [Gal. 3:28]. (See also 1 Corinthians 12:13; cf. Colossians 3:10-11 where our renewal in Christ is again viewed in terms of a “body”).  If you are saved, you are saved with respect to a bodyand this carries with it both privileges and responsibilities.  Hence, our proper individuality cannot be developed or realized without the body, and the body must have our contributions as parts.

This is tension we must be conscious of, and in our day there appears to be an awakening to the body of Christ as communityand a moving away from the traditional individualism. The temptation is to swing to body-less individualism or to individual-less bodyism.

2.  The tension between accepting brethren and yet confronting them with the truth of Christ.

Romans 15:7 commands us to accept one another, just as Christ accepted you.  Yet in the same chapter Paul commends the Romans for their “ability to admonish [Greek, noutheteo, “confront”] one another” (Romans 15:14).

There is so much that needs to be said, but here are just a few remarks.  Our tendency is to reject other professing Christians who disagree with our understanding of Scripture in what we regard as crucial issues.  Or, there is the tendency to so emphasize acceptance that there is no confrontation with the truth.  To fully accept people in the bonds of truth and to confront them in an atmosphere of acceptance is a tension we must face and work out.

I perceive that this is a key issue before the church today.  How can churches grow if they will not be open and vulnerable in order to face the truth togetherAnd the only way they can face the whole counsel of God as a body is to fully accept one another in Christ.  We must, therefore, cultivate atmospheres in our churches where the brethren can feel free to express themselves.  The point here is summarized well in the eleven principles given by Vernard Eller (see Searching Together, Spring, 1983, p. 12).  Growth, according to Paul, can occur only when we speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:15; John 17:17).  Elliot Johnson observes:

“In a sense, evangelicals have lived with an interpretational truce.  While we agree on doctrinal ‘essentials’ we have also agreed to not talk very seriously about issues of disagreement.  Yet Paul charted God’s strategy for Christian growth [in Ephesians 4:12-13].  In order to reach unity we need some way to talk about our different interpretations and to evaluate these differences.  Too often the discussion moves quickly to the defense of a position or a reputation.  This is not in the spirit of ‘speaking the truth in love’. . . . In seeking a ‘strategy of resolution,’ one dare not surrender the ideal of Scripture teaching the truth.  Resolution does not imply compromise in truth to a level of mutual agreement.  Rather, resolution implies a mutual willingness to modify one’s own interpretation in view of authoritative principles in interpretation” (“Author’s Intention and Biblical Interpretation,” position paper given in Chicago at the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1982, pp.1-2).

The problem in most churches is that the very rationale for the group’s existence rules out the possibility of certain “truths” being discussed.  The “truth” can only fit the pre-determined boundaries. Hence, new insights and questions raised are more often than not discredited and thrown out.  When a controversial matter comes up, the body will polarize into different camps, and often splits occur.

I suggest that this kind of behavior is childish and makes a mockery of the Holy Spirit and the gospel.  When we face new issues from the Word, are we willing to work together, study together, pray together, and even fast together to seek the Lord’s will and try to come to greater agreement?  Most of us are ready to separate from other brethren at the drop of a hat.  But it takes a commitment to the truth and the brothers and sisters to be willing to work matters out.  We have great need of the Spirit of grace to cause us to stick it out in the process by which we can all grow.  The realization and institution of a process by which churches can face anything in Scripture together in humble dependence on the Holy Spirit is indeed a great need, a crying need, and, unfortunately, a need that most churches are not aware of or interested in.

Issues come up in every church — the place of Israel in God’s plan, the rapture, the millennium, the place of women in the church, church government, law and grace, politics, gifts of the Spirit, altar calls, election/predestination, free will, etc.  Most churches will go bananas when disagreement arises.  There is no process by which matters of concern to the body can be worked out constructively.  Most people are intimidated, and rarely speak up.  Many fear the pastor or the deacons.  Communication is one-way (pulpit to pew), and discussion is not encouraged.  These kinds of patterns must be changed.

3.  The tension between standing in the Scriptural convictions we have and giving way to and changing in light of further instruction from the Word.

There is nothing wrong in standing in and asserting the convictions we believe God has given us in the Word.  But our tendency is to calcify and become stagnant in our convictions.  We view our convictions as a status quo to be protected, rather than as a foundation for further growth and development.  We tend to hang around the city instead of boarding the wagon train.

The Christian life is couched in growthTherefore, change and modification should be viewed as normal and not as strange.  In dealing with others, we must keep this tension in view.  It is good and healthy for brethren to share their convictions with each other. This aids growth.  But we must be ready to listen and learn from the beliefs of others.  We are not possessors of all truth.

4. The tension between proper doctrine and proper life.

In the history of the church, one would have to judge that some kind of wedge exists between sound doctrine and godly living.  But the Bible does not know of such a wedge.  The gospel is designed to have a particular effect on our lives, and our living must be based on sound teaching.

It is a tragedy that churches marked by a “doctrinal” emphasis have tended to be short on the out-workings of love, and churches marked by a “practical” emphasis tend to avoid getting particular about Bible truth.  But the New Testament pattern is to present the form of sound words (the gospel) and then to base Christian behavior on this truth.  Thus, Romans 1-11 is primarily a doctrinal foundation, and Romans 12-16 is primarily a response of the life to the grace of God in Christ. This pattern can also be clearly seen in Ephesians 1-4 and Ephesians 4-6, and Colossians 1-2 and Colossians 3-4.

In our day many brethren are lamenting that they must choose between churches with “doctrine” they enjoy but a church life that smells of death, or churches with an encouraging church life but some questionable doctrine. One brother just called me and was in agony over the fact that his church choices were (1) a dispensational body that would not accept him unless he toed the line with their Israel-centered eschatology, (2) a Calvinistic Baptist church with more death than life, and (3) a Pentecostal church whose fellowship he appreciated, but they would not accept him unless he spoke in tongues! Many are in a parallel situation.

But we must strive after the whole counsel of God that is necessary for our spiritual welfare, and seek to see concrete love manifested in the body-life of the church.  We dare not compromise in either directionfor they both are connected in the New Testament.  However, such balance of doctrine and life will only be attainable in local churches where

  •  people are accepted,
  •  people are confronted with the truth, and
  •  where people find themselves in an atmosphere where they can study and work through truth together.

I know what most of you are thinking right now: this all sounds good on paper, but where is it practiced?  I wish I could find such a church where truth could be pursued in love.  Indeed, there appears to be relatively few places where concern for truth and love are evident.  But the issue must be, if these principles are Biblical they will work and are for our goodThis leads me to conclude by saying that:

  1.  Because of years of unscriptural traditions, we must begin educating ourselves and others in the truths of the Word.
  2.  We must all begin to individually practice both an accepting attitude toward others and a concern for the whole counsel of God.
  3.  We must work toward seeing these principles come to living expression in local churches.
  4.  We must always remember that the Holy Spirit is desirous of these things in church life, and we have every reason to believe, therefore, that He will honor these principles and that they will also be met with opposition (Galatians 5:22-23; 4:29).

If we pursue “truth” without acceptance of others, we become sectarianIf we pursue “acceptance” without truth, we become reductionisticBoth extremes are spiritually dangerous, and we must pursue acceptance with a view toward growing in the whole counsel of God.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is going to use His truth to bring blessing and growth to many. The Spirit bearing witness to the Word of truth is greater than any error or tradition, and can bring the saints to practice the truth as it is in Jesus.

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