|Volume 18 Number 11 November 2016||
Louis Rushmore, Editor
Thank you for your faithful study. Louis, here’s my question. Please direct me to the Scriptures. Which are the non-negotiables when making the decision to extend fellowship or not? I have no other desire than to follow Scripture, but the details that we focus on sometimes in our brotherhood leave me confounded. Can a church look different in things like worship style, for example, and still be given our hand?
“Non-negotiables,” as the one posing the question above wrote, most surely are delineated in “the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). Just as was true regarding the Old Testament prophets (2 Peter 1:20-21), “the apostles’ doctrine” was not of their own origin, but they were given it from God in heaven (Matthew 16:19) through the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:13).
For clarification, commonly translations of Matthew 16:19 do not adequately convey that God made doctrinal decisions that were passed on to the apostles versus the apostles making decisions that were passed on to God. The verse purposes to teach that the apostles’ doctrine was not their own, but that they received it from God. Somewhat awkward in English and not flowing smoothly, nevertheless, the following two translations more accurately reflect that the apostles’ doctrine which they proclaimed pertained to what God in heaven had already decided. “And I will give to thee the keys of the reign of the heavens, and whatever thou mayest bind upon the earth shall be having been bound in the heavens, and whatever thou mayest loose upon the earth shall be having been loosed in the heavens,” (Matthew 16:19 Young’s Literal Translation). “I shall give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth [forbid to be done], shall have been already bound [forbidden to be done] in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth [permit to be done], shall have already been loosed in heaven [permitted to be done]” (Matthew 16:19 Wuest Expanded New Testament).
Consequently, the New Testament repeatedly forbids any doctrinal alteration (Revelation 22:18-19) or substitution of the Gospel with a more palatable, manmade gospel (Matthew 15:9; Romans 10:3; 2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6-9). Over and over, the apostle Paul urged the pursuit only of “sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:10; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1). The apostle John called upon Christians to discern between doctrinal truth and falsehood and their respective proponents (1 John 4:1). Anyone preaching, teaching or practicing anything religiously other than “the apostles’ doctrine,” “the gospel,” “sound doctrine” or “the doctrine of Christ” is not suitable for Christian fellowship or to be “given our hand,” as the questioner wrote. “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds,” (2 John 9-11 NKJV). Christians are forbidden to extend Christian fellowship to false teachers because such would sanction the doctrinal error and its advocate.
The New Testament is not so vague that truth seekers with honest hearts are unable to discover “the apostle’s doctrine” regarding any number of subjects that are crucial to the child of God’s eternal wellbeing. For instance, putting aside denominational theology, it is not difficult to ascertain how one becomes a child of God whereby one’s past sins are forgiven (Mark 16:16) and he or she is added to the church by our Lord (Acts 2:47). Any alteration or substitution here would represent false doctrine and a breach of Christian fellowship.
Likewise, Christian worship is not a mystery to anyone who conscientiously examines the New Testament and who genuinely respects biblical authority. The apostolically led first century church engaged in five distinct worshipful activities (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 14:15; 16:1-2). Anything more or less is not authorized by Scripture. In addition, Christian service and most Christian doctrine can also be discerned with little difficulty by those who are willing to allow God to speak on those matters through the Holy Writ.
Now as to such things as “worship style,” we have a few suggestions for consideration. Often differences in what one might refer to as worship style actually pertain to cultural differences, and yet at the same time, some things may masquerade as worship style when really we are addressing something of a doctrinal nature.
Obviously, worship style would vary greatly between a first century assembly of the Lord’s church and almost any contemporary assembly for the purpose of New Testament worship by Christians. Historically, the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) lacked four part harmony and may have been more like chanting and recitation of Holy Spirit inspired psalms. Four part harmony likely would have caused an uproar in the first century, and monotone recitations today would be thought strange in our worship services.
Even in our time, what one might refer to as worship style varies greatly between world cultures, even among the churches of Christ. In some Asian cultures, members of the Lord’s church gather for Christian worship in someone’s home, barefoot, sitting on the floor and without a tie and jacket on the males. Even the men may wear clothing more nearly resembling Bible-era clothes (e.g., skirts by other names) than resembling western clothing. That garb and customs would be out of place in most of our congregations in the USA, whereas in those particular foreign venues a three-piece suit, tie and polished shoes in such a culture and tropical environment would be superfluous or excessively unnecessary.
Cultural differences in nations throughout the world may manifest themselves variously. In some countries our brethren invest more time in worship in the communion than they do in the preaching. One congregation in particular devotes the first hour of a two hour worship period to the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Neither of those practices would be typical among our congregations in the United States.
There are cultural variations among churches of Christ in America also. There are regional differences. Often there are cultural differences between metropolitan areas versus rural areas. There are cultural variances respecting different generations within a congregation. Presently and anciently, there are and were disparities in racial cultures (e.g., “the synagogue of the Freedmen, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia,” Acts 6:9 NKJV).
As long as a cultural activity is not biblically incorrect and it is not distractive, one may observe it. If a cultural activity is biblically incorrect, it does not correspond to “the apostles’ doctrine,” “sound doctrine,” “the gospel” or “the doctrine of Christ,” and therefore, such a thing would be sinful and ought not to be practiced.
The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:16 addressed a first century custom in parts of the Roman Empire, but not in all of the Roman Empire, as to whether a Christian woman was required to wear a veil. As long as she otherwise submitted to the scriptural prescription of male leadership, whether a woman wore a veil in the public assembly was a matter of local custom and not a doctrinal requirement of Christianity. Evidently, most Christians believe that to be the case because typically Christian women do not wear a veil in Christian worship (and a lesser cloth on a female’s head is not the same as the first century veil). Burton Coffman noted in his commentary: “This whole passage affirms the necessity for Christians to have a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, and not to flaunt social customs of any kind merely for the sake of being different. As McGarvey said, ‘One who follows Christ will find himself conspicuously different from the world, without practicing any tricks of singularity.’”
There is no legitimate reason to unnecessarily agitate a congregation of the Lord’s people by injecting a counter or subcultural practice into it. “If, as is the case, anyone presumes to be cantankerous [about the moral obligation of a woman to wear a head covering when engaged in public prayer in the assembly], as for us, we do not have such a custom [namely, that of a woman praying with uncovered head], neither do the assemblies of God” (1 Corinthians 11:11 Wuest Expanded New Testament). “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16 NKJV).
Furthermore, on matters of opinion that are neither right nor wrong, Christians need to be considerate of one another (Romans 14:14-23; 1 Corinthians 8:12). Charitable Christian brethren would rather forego something that they might do without offending Scripture, but which if they do may offend brothers and sisters in Christ. Godly Christians would rather suffer wrong even than to bring reproach upon the church (1 Corinthians 6:7).
Finally, one can “discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:12-14) by exercising oneself in the study of God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15). After that, a person can assess a cultural practice to see if it runs afoul of “sound doctrine.” Lastly, a conscientious child of God will be careful not to unnecessarily aggravate fellow Christians by insisting upon a cultural practice with which they are not acquainted or that they are reluctant to adopt. Christians may practice inoffensive cultural practices, but they should not be the instigators of cultural change and activists for introducing subcultures or affecting cultural changes.