From the first day of man’s existence until this day, God has given instruction to man about His will. God has always revealed His will to man so that man can, if he wishes, understand and apply that will to life’s circumstances. God told Adam and Eve what they could and could not eat in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-3). Adam and Eve understood with certainty what God’s will was for them as related to the trees of the Garden. In Genesis chapter 6, God revealed to Noah the specifics of the ark he was to build to save himself and his family from the flood. This chapter reveals that Noah did all that God had commanded him to do. The clear and certain instructions of God for Noah show that God reveals clearly to man His divine will.
In the New Testament we learn, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). In 1 John 2:3-5 we read, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him” (1 John 2:3-5). There are many, many other passages in the Bible that show that God has revealed His will to man. These passages also show that man is expected to understand God’s will in matters of revelation and that man is expected to follow them. God’s revelation of His will to man shows us that He expects man to be sure and certain of the way of life that will result in salvation eternal.
In view of these clear truths (which could be supported by many other passages of scripture) it may be surprising to some to read and hear brethren in the church of Christ who are not certain about some things that God has revealed. They write as though one cannot be certain of things simply because the Bible says the things, but they propose the old denominational argument that such an understanding may simply be “one’s own interpretation” or the result of one’s “cultural heritage or history”!
Some time back Bro. Jack R. Reese wrote a book entitled, The Body Broken: Embracing the Peace of Christ in a Fragmented Church. Bro. Reese is Dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. The magazine One Body (Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer 2005) included an article on Chapter 1 of Reese’s book entitled, “Facing the Past, Framing The Future.” In the article you are reading page notations refer to the pages of that issue of One Body. In the entire article there was not one citation of Scripture. So the Scriptures referred to in this article are offered in support of truth, and often as rebuttal to Bro. Reese’s surmisings.
Bro. Reese seems to hold the position that where we are now and where we are going depends upon the “history” of past behavior and our “heritage” more than it depends upon our listening to and following God’s revealed Word. He said on page 4, “A glance back at our past provides perspective on how we have become who we are and casts light on the road we seem determined to take.” Truly those who followed God’s Word in past generations have significantly influenced the growth and development of the church. The point is, however, that we are not dependent upon any uninspired men or groups of men for the certainty and truthfulness of a proper position of service today. We are totally dependent upon God’s complete and certain revelation – the Bible.
It is certainly true that certain individuals during the Restoration Movement had very strong opinions on the issues of their day but did not draw lines of fellowship over them (the issues included use of instrumental music in worship and the missionary societies). Bro. Reese does not point out that the refusal of these leaders to recognize God’s lines of fellowship (men cannot arbitrarily “draw” lines of fellowship) resulted in the majority of faithful churches of Christ losing their buildings, other properties, and schools and colleges to the liberal elements of the apostate brotherhood of that day! He states on page 4 that “Some preachers implored churches to live in unity despite their differences. But this spirit did not prevail. We are heirs of that legacy.” I, for one, am thankful that there were faithful Christians who would not compromise the truth for the sake of a perceived “unity.” There can be no spiritual unity until all are willing to agree to the truth of the Spirit’s revealed Word! (See Ephesians 4.) Anything else may be a “union” but it is not the “unity of the Spirit.”
In the first chapter of Reese’s book there are two points made and expanded. One refers to what is called “historylessness” and the other relates to what he called “the oppressive companion called Certainty. On page 5 is this reading:
Restoration churches from the beginning were imbued with an impulse to skip over the past in an attempt to consider the first century alone. Most church members today reflect this inclination, either by denying that they have a history or simply by their ignorance of it. At its most insidious this historylessness takes the form of spiritual amnesia, a disease in this case consciously chosen by the sufferer. . . .Historylessness functions most destructively by robbing us of perhaps our most important Christian quality: humility. If every other group is forged out of human labor and only ours comes directly from God, if all others are shaped by human doctrine but only ours follows scripture completely, then our only possible response is to stand over everyone else in judgment or pity.
Several questions are in order. Does going back to the first century for instruction and example (that is, going back to the New Testament revelations about first century Christianity) keep one from being humble and submissive to God’s will? To the contrary, when one submits to the New Testament’s instructions he is bowing in humility to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Such a humble one will seek by example and word to lead all others who will listen to the foot of the same Cross!
Does Bro. Reese believe that the church of Christ came from the labors of men or did it come from God or did it come from God but was dependent upon the work of men? Can Bro. Reese name one denominational church whose doctrines and practices came ONLY from God and not also from man? Doe Bro. Reese believe there is one denominational group that is NOT shaped (in doctrine) by human labor? Does Bro. Reese believe that we can (ought to and are able to) follow scripture completely? Does Bro. Reese know the difference between the response “to stand over everyone else in judgment and pity” and the responsibility all Christians have to submit to the judgment of God, through His word, and to exhort all others to do likewise?
How much church history must one know to become and remain a faithful Christian? If he knows what the New Testament teaches is not that enough? Other knowledge may be interesting and provocative, but it does not compare with inspiration’s revelation. Must one become enamored with the “history” of and “decisions” of various churches down through the years in order to have a humble spirit? If so the Catholics should be the example! Is it not enough to be blessed by the “inspired word” (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17)?
On pages 6 and 7 Bro. Reese talks about the “companion of Certainty.”
My companion did not merely live in our home but also was a vibrant part of the life of our church, though I could hardly have distinguished home from church since one almost completely overlapped and defined the other. Its presence was not unique to our home. In fact, because of how my parents lived and what they taught their children, our experience with this presence was less substantial than that of most of my friends. But everyone I knew in Churches of Christ had a common experience with it. We didn’t talk about it, but we felt it in every sermon and every class. Its name was Certainty. . . . . This companion was a great comfort, providing solace and reassurance to us all. . . . . I can recall almost no negative experiences growing up in Churches of Christ. . . . I have never felt the burden of legalism. I do not recollect ever feeling repressed or judged. For me Christian living was not only full of joy, it was the only life I could imagine. Of course, being a Christian meant living the way we lived and believing what we believed, which is to say, being certain of what we knew. . . . .Certainty was present at every church service. It was a companion in every prayer, the unspoken assurance behind every sermon. I knew who was going to heaven and who was not. Those who were going to heaven came only from those of us who were, as we called them, “members of the church.” Not all members of the church, of course, would go to heaven (who knew everyone’s private thoughts and behaviors?) But clearly no one else would. There is a great deal of comfort growing up in a world here things are so clear. I just couldn’t understand why those who were not members of the church didn’t always like us or sometimes thought we were condescending. But that was just one of the consequences of living with Certainty. It was our burden to bear, and we bore it with purpose and determination. . . . .Moreover, I still believe most of what [emphasis mine, GBR] I was taught. I am more committed than ever to baptism by immersion for forgiveness of sins, weekly communion, the leadership of elders, freedom from denominational hierarchy, and the authority of scripture. My understanding is deeper now. I believe my perspectives are broader and my approach to scripture healthier. But the essence of what I was taught I have not rejected. The greatest problem was not what I was taught but the unexamined and ubiquitous presence of Certainty. . . .I do not mean to imply, of course, that there are no certainties, no absolutes. There are. The problem is not that we acknowledge the certainty of God at the center of things. It is in assuming that we have mastered these certainties rather than being mastered by them, that our understanding is the understanding, that our knowledge is complete while the knowledge of others is partial or flawed. The issue is not whether the object of our knowing is certain. It is. Rather, my concern is whether our knowing of it is flawless. It is not. . . . While Certainty, at least on the surface, served us well enough in the past — keeping our fellowship together, energizing our zeal for evangelism, inspiring our preaching — it is proving false in our current context. [Emphasis mine, GBR] As the continental shelves of opposing cultures slide and crash into each other, as the ground beneath us shakes, and the structures we have long trusted begin to tremble, Certainty seems to have abandoned us. We have clear answers to many questions that our children and our culture are no longer asking. A growing number suspect the Bible was not asking some of those questions either. Our isolation from others is now our bane. Because of it, because of Certainty’s betrayal, the very identity of the church as we have known it is crumbling. [Emphasis mine, GBR] If we are not who we were, if what we knew to be true can now be challenged, if we can engage in meaningful and constructive conversations with others who are different than we and even learn from them, then who are we? If Certainty was the engine of our movement, if our exclusive claim to salvation was the justification for our existence, and if these values are collapsing, then what is our reason to exist now?
Is it possible (Can we be certain of it?) to “know whom we have believed” (2 Tim. 1:12)? Can one know if he has “fought the good fight” and laid “hold on eternal life” (2 Tim. 4:7; 1 Tim. 6:12)? Did the Lord have the authority to provide an “exclusive” road to salvation which man may know and follow (Matthew 7: 13-14)? Can we be certain that we “know Him” by keeping His commandments?
My answers to these questions are in the affirmative. This is because I believe the Bible! Any kind of sophisticated philosophy and writing that denies the truth of God’s Word is not following the Certain path! It is following the “uncertain” path to unbelief and places one on the road downward to destruction. When we see men in supposed “high places” in the Kingdom who deny the certain promises of the New Covenant, we must realize the pernicious danger that they represent to anyone who follows their instructions and suggestions.
May our Lord help us to “be strong in the Lord and the power of His might.” May we allow His word to always guide and direct our lives – in all the things we do and say.
-Glen B Ramsey