THE IMPORTANCE OF RESTORING APOSTOLIC CHRISTIANITY
The importance of the church: God's kingdom among men!
There is no need more urgent on our planet than that apostolic Christianity should be restored. Considering the desperate conditions that exist on this planet, that is a bold statement indeed. Poverty and hunger, suicidal loneliness, political and racial hatreds, people slipping over the brink of insanity, families disintegrating: can the establishment of a religious organization really be more important than the resolution of those wretched conditions? Properly understood, the answer is a resounding "yes!"
And I do not say this lightly; I have known the godless fear that suicide might be the only alternative to a total breakdown. And, perhaps like you also, during the course of my life I have known loneliness to the point of tears. I have felt the fear of failure, and have known deep anxiety about whether I might "go under" financially. Yet I still say that there is no need more urgent than that the Christianity of Christ and His apostles should be restored. You see, if the church were to enter into the Biblical teaching and obedience described in the following chapters, she would provide a form of human society within which none of those wretched conditions mentioned above would ever exist again.
We humans have many basic needs, and even more subtle ones. God's design for us Christians is that we satisfy those needs not simply as individuals, or even as families, but as communities of disciples of Jesus. Hear this, Christian: Christ in His church is God's solution to all human needs and problems, not just its "theological" ones. Governments down through the ages have addressed, with varying degrees of seriousness and various degrees of success, what they considered the pressing problems of man. Sadly, history shows us that they never have been able to provide an adequate solution to those problems; and there are no grounds for believing that their inability to do so will ever change. The thesis of this book, however, is that in the church of Christ (and only in His church) there is such a solution: a solution that actually used to exist, and a solution that God intends to restore!
As we will demonstrate, the church described in the New Testament is not simply a center of worship and doctrine; she is a society in her own right. God's kingdom is not a formless mass of individuals whose belief and practice are carried out in private; nor is it the loose-knit association that gathers together a few times a week for "religious" activity, such as is characterized by current Christianity. When the Kingdom of God is manifested on the earth, a visible society is created. The church is that society of regenerated humans who have accepted Jesus as the divinely appointed ruler of the whole race of man. Her charter is to demonstrate how the entire race of humans could function if they yielded to the authority, to the love and to the Spirit of God's Anointed One. His church is the sphere where God's plans for the "total man" and for every aspect of human society are accomplished. Indeed, the church IS the true form of human society! -- such is her call; such is what is implied in being called "Christ's body" (1 Corinthians 12:27), "a chosen race, ...a holy nation, ...the people of God" (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Think of the kind of conditions which had to have existed in the apostolic church in order for it to be described by them as a "body," a "race," a "nation" and a "people." Most of us contemporary Christians are so used to reading those terms and so used to thoughtlessly and invalidly applying them to our form of Christianity that we fail to see the obvious: they are terms that can only be applied to a group of people that is very tightly knit together -- at LEAST as tightly knit together as the secular communities in which we live. Can you honestly apply those terms to whatever group of Christians you now belong? Are the members of your congregation so tightly knit together that you all function in this world as one organism, one body? Is your congregation's community life so complete -- so mutually committed to one another's well-being, and so well organized to enable you all to survive and flourish in all aspects of life -- that you find the term "nation" a natural way to describe yourselves? I suspect not. Yet those were the very terms that came to the apostles' inspired minds when they sought to describe the church they knew and experienced. The difference between their Christianity and what we have gotten used to calling Christianity is profound, pilgrim! Catholic and Orthodox theologies do paint a more beautiful picture than do Protestant ecclesiologies; but I have spent MUCH time among them, and the actual people that live under such lovely words would never be described in those terms by an objective observer. Mostly, they are merely the unconverted and jaded world at prayer.
If members of an apostolic brotherhood were to suddenly find themselves in one of Christendom's congregations today, what differences do you think they would detect? They would notice significant differences in doctrine, worship and organization, to be sure. But I suspect they would be most distressed because of another difference they would quickly sense. It is a difference like the difference between marriage and casual dating: the difference between an intimate, life-long relationship of people who have "all things in common," versus a "meaningful relationship" that serves merely to take the edge off of our loneliness and to enable us to have some fun together. It is a difference like the difference between the U.S. Marines and the Boy Scouts of America: the difference between a brotherhood whose way of life effectively prepares its members to march right into the jaws of death together, versus one that exists merely to provide nice times together. It is a difference like the difference between theater and reality: between "make believe" and "is." That is how far the Christianity we know is removed from the reality called "apostolic Christianity," the Christianity described in the New Testament.
Any church that would be "true" or "apostolic" must be able to exhibit much more than personal experience, or a supposedly true pedigree (e.g., apostolic succession of bishops or a Roman papacy), must exhibit more than good deeds done by individuals, and must exhibit more than true doctrines about the theological fundamentals (i.e., the boast of orthodoxy). A church that would be judged by God to be the same kind of brotherhood that He originally created must have begun to walk in the boast of a true society: "we are a people among whom God has solved the problems of racism, loneliness, addiction, greed, inequality, violence, injustice and poverty." Only a church that can make that claim is the kind of church that you and I can believe in with all our hearts, the kind of brotherhood that we would gladly die for. Note well that I am NOT making such a community the all-important criterion: personal experience, those good deeds and God's version of "orthodoxy" are very important also. But once you have entered into the majestic vision of God's idea of Christianity, virtually all of the churches you visit will leave you with the feeling that they are "playing church," like children who play at being adults, unconscious of the tremendous difference in experience between where they are and adulthood. If, for example, you want to find disciplined and fruitful sharing of burdens, you will probably find it, sadly, in a secular therapy group long before you'll find a group of Christians confessing their sins to each other like we are commanded to do (James 5:16). If you want to find an organization where there is an attempt to abolish poverty and sinful forms of inequity, you're likely to find it out in the world long before you'll find it among the congregations of Christendom. That is how terribly far the Christianity we know is removed from the reality God calls His church! What men call "Christendom" is very corrupt indeed, including those that call themselves "Bible believing Christians." We find no difficulty looking at Christendom in, say, the 1300's and being able to think of the whole Christian church then being in great corruption. But from the perspective of the kingdom of God that Jesus brought to the earth, our entire Christen church today is also in great corruption, in collusion with this world system, and so dull of spirit that we do not even know it!
So look to the Son of God, and to His wisdom and to His holy church, all you who yearn for the way things ought to be among men! Do you yearn for a world where there are no rich taking advantage of the poor? Do you yearn for a world where those in power use their power to empower others? Do you yearn for a world whose joyful, generous and disciplined way of life causes people to develop to their full intellectual, creative, physical, and emotional potential? Do you yearn for a world where no one is abandoned to hunger or homelessness? Do you yearn for a world that introduces the souls of its citizens to the experience of such inwardly satisfying and transforming realities as truth, holiness and glory? Do you yearn for a world whose way of life begins to blur the distinction between natural and supernatural? Would you consecrate all that you possess in order to make that world come into being? I would. If you would also, then look to the Jesus and to the way of life and to the society that is described in the New Testament. That incredible kind of world is the byproduct of their presence on the earth. That world has never existed, and unfortunately never will exist, among the rebellious and unbelieving race of man (whether they call themselves Christian or not), but it did actually exist when men walked in the true faith of Christ and in obedience to His teachings. It is waiting to be restored in our day. And you have a part in awakening members of your congregation to the possibility of its restoration in your midst!
The New Testament describes faithful apostolic communities as the very body of Christ on earth, the fullness of Him who fills all things (Ephesians 1:23), bodies in which the glory of God that is manifested through Christ Jesus has become visible and tangible. Given that kind of importance of the church, can you agree with me that there is indeed nothing more important (apart from the return of Christ) than the restoration of apostolic Christianity? Its establishment was a more profound revolution than any of the secular revolutions we have seen in recent centuries; so also will be its re-establishment!
The need for a unified Christianity
Since my conversion to Christ in 1959, I have spent many years in full-time theological and historical studies, trying to understand the doctrines and history of the numerous traditions of Christianity. I have also become personally acquainted with a number of those traditions: Assemblies of God, Calvinist, Charismatic Episcopal Church, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of Christ, Congregational, Episcopalian (as a priest), Eastern Orthodox, Hutterite, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Plymouth Brethren, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army and others about which many have never even heard. The separation of whole-hearted disciples of Jesus into competing denominations, where they are so often a minority within a sea of complacent or Biblically-confused people, seemed very confusing to me in the beginning of my walk with Christ -- confusing and very wrong. After years of studying church history, denominational fragmentation is no longer confusing, but it still seems very wrong. And even more wrong is the assumption I keep encountering among so many Christians, that this division among Christians is inevitable and must therefore be accepted, or that it is not that important a matter to get upset about. The more I have come to understand the tremendous importance that the church has in God's plan for the human race, the more tragic that division and that assumption seem to me. Why tragic? It is tragic because all of the components of apostolic Christianity already exist! But, just like the whole-hearted disciples of Jesus mentioned above, they too are kept from coming together by those denominational walls (within which they too are surrounded and weakened by the unbiblical teachings and institutions found within those denominations). Are you prepared to dismantle the walls of denominationalism and disunity that surround you?
Apostolic Christianity: Catholic or Protestant?
In 1959, during a year spent at sea through the federal merchant marine academy, the Jesus I had been hearing about regularly since childhood in Sunday School and in church awakened within me my need for Him and for His salvation. In addition to the Scriptures, the catalyst He used was Augustine of Hippo, the fifth-century bishop and theologian from North Africa, who wrote about his journey to Christ in his now famous Confessions.1 His description of the intense struggle he went through before surrendering his life to Christ threw me into my own personal struggle and led to my surrendering my life to Jesus.
It was Augustine who also awakened within me a desire to understand the nature of the original church of Christ, since the story of his conversion to Christ was very much interwoven with his journey from paganism, through a quasi-Christian heresy (Manichaeism) to the "true faith" of the "Catholic church." When I began this pilgrimage of discovery, I assumed that there was a "true church" out there somewhere, one that was authorized by Jesus to teach and act in His name, one that taught the full revelation of God; so I set out to find it.
On one of the passenger ships in which I was sailing was a Roman Catholic chaplain. He introduced me to the claims of his church: that the Roman church was not only the very same church that my friend Augustine had entered and had defended, but that it was that very true church of Christ I was looking for. His reasoning seemed convincing at the time, and it took me some years before I could sort out the wheat from the chaff in his argument. Of course, many or most of my evangelical friends would not think there is any wheat in their argument, but my studies of the New Testament and the history of the early church have since led me to believe that there are indeed some doctrines, disciplines and attitudes within Catholic traditions that are more faithful to the New Testament than their Protestant counterparts, and should be embraced by any and all who bear the name of Christ.
Those of us who have grown up in Protestant circles usually believe that we lost nothing when our founders left the Roman Catholic Church. Supposedly, the reformers simply restored the Bible to its rightful place of supremacy and built rather adequately upon that evangelical principal. However, to think that the Protestant reformers (or their successors) were motivated simply and solely by the desire to be uncompromisingly obedient to the New Testament is, I finally came to see, quite naive.
One of the things that certainly got in the way of a simple acceptance of all the Scriptures was that Protestants tended to develop the same kind of unexamined hostility that occurs in some divorces, or in individuals who have broken away -- at great emotional cost -- from an overbearing parent. Protestants reformers, so I have come to understand, were commonly driven by a very powerful need to tear down the hold that the Roman Catholic church -- the enemy -- exercised over the masses. That hold was founded upon its claim to divine authority and upon its priestly control of the sacraments (which were popularly understood to be the only means of entering into and remaining in God's grace). Given the climate of hostility and violent reaction that prevailed (on both sides), many or most Protestant interpreters of the Scriptures were predisposed to weaken the meaning of New Testament passages that affirmed things like ecclesiastical authority and the sacraments. And one of the reasons why Protestantism has not taken the writers of the early church as seriously as those brethren ought to have be taken is because they can find no support among them for their low regard for sacraments and church authority. The Protestant reactionary attitude -- one which indeed caused the proverbial throwing out of the baby with the dirty bath water -- led ultimately to the current exaggerated emphasis upon individualism and the low level of awareness of the presence of Christ in the church's worship that still marks Protestantism. While the original emotional hostility has fortunately been significantly lowered in our generation, it still very effectively keeps whole-hearted disciples of Jesus in both camps quite closed to each other's convictions. Protestant-based movements have not been able to restore apostolic Christianity, in part because Protestantism was too negative and reactionary a movement to begin with.
The mind of Jesus is humble, loves God's revealed truth and works to reconcile enemies. Should not that same mind-set also impel all of His disciples, whatever our traditions, to be open and eager to receive ANYthing of His, even if it is to be found within a tradition that we must consider to be deviant in important respects? The spirits within godly Protestant and Catholic disciples should yearn to be reconciled with each other. It is His truth we are seeking, not Catholic truth, Baptist truth or Pentecostal truth: right?
I believe that the restoration of apostolic doctrine, anointing, discipline and attitudes is not at all the impossible thing that many think. However, it does require embracing and building upon all of the New Testament -- something that anti-Catholicism (and anti-Protestantism) makes impossible. Bridging the doctrinal and emotional chasm that divides Catholic and Protestant disciples of Christ is an essential aspect of the restoration of apostolic Christianity. Are you inwardly free to bridge that chasm in order to recover long-neglected Scriptures and bring them to their fulfillment?
How to establish what is apostolic:
The New Testament with help from the early church
In the chapters ahead, I shall attempt to describe for you my understanding of the teaching, the disciplines, the procedures and the structures of apostolic Christianity. The things presented here are presented with two claims: that they are what the apostles of Jesus handed down to us, and that they were in fact the doctrines and disciplines of the ancient, post-apostolic church. Consequently, when relevant, two kinds of documents are presented along with the topic being considered: the Scriptures and witnesses from the first few centuries after Jesus.
Accordingly, be sure to first check out every Scriptural reference, to make sure that the interpretation given satisfies the grammatical and most natural sense of the text. Furthermore, ask yourself whether all pertinent Scriptures, or at least a balanced sampling of them, are being used to establish the doctrine or discipline in question. These are the two exegetical principles I have applied while thinking through the various topics in this book. You must decide whether the conclusions are true. But please ask yourself this question about any resistance you may feel rising up within you to the things that are put forth: does that resistance arise because the Scriptures are being misinterpreted by me, or because you are not used to taking the text as directly and as literally as is being proposed?
In addition to the Scriptural test, we should investigate whether the doctrine or discipline that is being presented is what the church in fact actually taught in its earliest days. After all, what we want to see restored must have actually existed. And unless the ancient brotherhoods fell into outright apostasy immediately after the influence of the apostles was removed, it is most reasonable to assume that they would have continued to teach and practice what had been handed down to them. Historical movements, whether secular or religious, lose their content and depth in a gradual manner (if there is going to be a loss at all). It is only fair, therefore, to expect that the supernaturally-empowered Christianity founded by Jesus and His anointed apostles would decline slowly rather than abruptly (assuming there would be a decline at all), and MUCH more slowly than any of our "reform movements" have declined. Therefore, the testimony of early Christians that describes the attitudes as well as the doctrinal, organizational and disciplinary traditions of their churches should be held in high regard. When you are examining the Scriptures, the testimony of these early fathers should also be studied. One cannot establish anything conclusively by this test alone, for only the Scriptures should receive our unqualified submission. But when I see how regularly the testimony of early brethren yields the same or very similar results as when I simply receive a Scriptural text literally, it increases my confidence that taking them literally is indeed God's will (and increases my respect for the early brethren!). The Protestant disregard for the brethren of the early Church borders on the cultic. They think that the God-made Christianity, that grew out of the actual physical presence of the incarnate Son of God and that had the descent of such an overwhelming Power so that even the dead were being raised -- they think that such a heavenly invasion could lose its character, integrity and memory so rapidly that it is of no use to test our interpretations of Scripture against their assertions of what they were taught. They think that the Christianity created by God Himself lost its essential character within a single generation, so that we do not have to take the testimony of these first generations with any authority. And yet they think (rightly) that they are quite able to determine what the founders of their MAN-made versions of Christianity taught, whether Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley; and they can boast (some of them, at any rate) that they have not departed significantly from their founders' teachings. Does this not seem a fantastic contradiction to you?
There is very little that is original within this work; almost everything is the result of the personal or written influence of some body of Christians that challenged me to take seriously some set of Scriptures that I had not previously considered. What you may well find to be unusual however, is the juxtaposition -- the joining together -- of some doctrines, disciplines and attitudes that are typically thought to be at odds with each other, solely because they belonged to traditions that have been at odds with each other.
Denominationalism's source: not building upon all the Scriptures
What accounts for the difference between the path that leads to the restoration of apostolic Christianity and any other version of contemporary Christianity that you know? I believe it can be reduced to a single phrase: "building upon all the Scriptures, as opposed to building upon some of them." What makes the denominations different from each other is that they each ignore different groups of Scriptures.
As different as the many denominations can be from one another, and as differently as they can interpret the same set of Scriptures, each of them that I have gotten to know uses the same two-fold procedure for handling New Testament texts. Some texts are received quite naturally and literally, on the assumption that when you read them their meaning is both self-evident and valid for our day. In other passages, however, the doctrinal or disciplinary implications of the literal reading are functionally ignored, on the assumption (I suppose) that the passages are too obscure to understand clearly, are too poetic to be taken literally, or are no longer valid for our day.
For example, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans and many Anglicans find the words "This is My body" (spoken by Jesus during the Last Supper) to be full of self-evident meaning for today, and their eucharistic theologies are based upon taking those words in a natural, literal sense. On the other hand, they judge as too poetic to be taken literally such passages as "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them" (Matthew 28:19), passages which clearly infer that you are supposed to be a committed disciple of Jesus before you are baptized and received as a member of Christ's body. Baptists and many other Evangelicals, on the other hand, reason in exactly the opposite manner, accepting the literal and "obvious" meaning of the latter group of Scriptures, but subjecting those Eucharistic passages to intense "poetic filtration" before accepting them. Do you know of any Christians who receive both sets of Scripture equally literally?
As another example, Quakers and Mennonites (and other Anabaptists) have exhorted us, by word and by sometimes heroic example, to receive Jesus' teaching about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:32f) as something that is self-evident, to be taken literally, and to be applied consistently to all of life. Yet they, along with almost all Protestants, consistently ignore, for example, the New Testament's encouragement of consecrated celibacy (Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:1-9). Catholic-type traditions, on the other hand, traditionally receive the literal sense of those celibacy texts as being the "obvious" meaning, yet have (along with most other traditions) turned the New Testament's way of non-violence into a vague ideal that will never get in the way of their members' participation in what they call a "just war." Do you know of any churches that receive both groups of Scriptures in their natural, literal sense?
Very frequently, in my experience, the literal and natural meaning of a passage is rejected because it is claimed to contradict the obvious and literal meaning of other passages. For example, the natural, literal meaning of Peter's assertion that "baptism saves you" and other such strongly sacramental New Testament baptismal passages2 is vigorously rejected by most Protestants because, they say, a sacramental interpretation would contradict the natural and literal meaning of the passages that say we are saved through faith, apart from works (e.g., Ephesians 2:8). And so, the natural and literal sense of the "salvation set" of Scriptures is turned against the natural and literal sense of the "sacramental set" of Scriptures. The Catholic-type traditions of course have their own version of that process. The trouble with that way of thinking is that it unwittingly implies a terrible theology of Scriptural inspiration: that the inspired texts actually do sometimes contradict one another when taken in their grammatically natural sense. The only thing that keeps the ludicrous nature of that logic from being obvious to us is that we all belong to theological traditions that have been reasoning that way for so many centuries that it has been "hallowed" by time. However, instead of explaining away one set of Scriptures so that they agree with our forced interpretation of another set of Scriptures, would it not please our heavenly Father to see us instead trying to find an interpretation of both sets of texts that takes both of them equally literally? That is the only way to restore apostolic doctrine. Can Protestants be so sure that salvation through faith in Christ and being saved by God through baptism are necessarily opposed to each other -- so sure that we wind up making our evangelical theology say "baptism does not save you," even though Peter says it does?3
Another way of not building upon all of the Scriptures is to ignore, downgrade the importance of, or even reject certain kinds of texts. For example, one well-known theological tradition, known as Dispensationalism, would have us not obey the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount in anything like their literal sense, on the ground that Jesus was speaking there to those still under the law, as if that somehow abolished the required nature of His teachings for post-resurrection and modern disciples.4 It is also quite common in many traditions to explain away the New Testament passages that teach or imply that the supernatural gifts of the Spirit are to be expected in today's church (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14): and so, they don't expect, they don't knock, they don't receive. Yet again, I have found that Christian denominations also will frequently disregard Scriptures that refer to supposedly "non-essential" matters, such as how the church organizes itself, how it conducts its worship, etc. Some rationalize the ignoring of these kind of Scriptures on the ground that the Spirit led the church into more definitive and mature patterns in later times (e.g., the modern Catholic argument for the papacy), Some can ignore them on the ground that God is not really that concerned about such issues, and so the church is forever free to evolve new patterns for new times (this latter principle is commonly used among Protestants). Neither principle is taught in the New Testament or in the early church; and -- even more remarkably -- neither have I been able to find those two principles in any of the Catholic or Protestant writings that come from the periods when their traditions were being established. Until quite modern times, the only acceptable ground for justifying a practice within either tradition was the ground of being obedient to the teaching and practice of the apostles. These evolutionary style arguments were invented after the fact, to justify developments that could not be justified by clear Scriptural teaching.
Christian traditions have become divided over numerous issues: from doctrinal issues like the meaning of "This is My body" in the Lord's Supper; to organizational issues like whether we should have groups of congregations under the authority of bishops or have congregational autonomy; to experiential issues like the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. Virtually always in each controversy, you will find some group of Christians upholding the literal and straightforward interpretation of New Testament Scriptures, while another group applies that filtering process mentioned above. Sadly, every denominational tradition in Christendom that I have come to know winds up operating from some of the apostolic writings rather than from all of them because of this selective filtration of New Testament writings. Of all the groups I have studied and come to know, I have found none that is consistent in receiving all these Scriptures in their straightforward and uncompromised sense, the only method by which we can restore the church to her apostolic foundation. This is in marked contrast to the writings of our brethren of the first several centuries. Among them, as you shall see for yourself in the following chapters, was an attitude that found nothing contradictory between, for example, a very "high church" theology of the sacraments and a very evangelical application of them.5 Nor did our early brethren find the Sermon on the Mount, the gifts of the Spirit, the voluntary "communism" of the saints or vowed celibacy occasions for stumbling or applying that "filter" mentioned above. Restoring the church to her apostolic foundation is not a matter of restoring one or two ignored Biblical realities (e.g., Christian community life or the baptism in the Spirit) -- tacking them onto, as it were, an existing compromised Catholic or Protestant framework. The restoration of the church will come, I believe, the same way the beginning of the church came: by people leaving all things behind in order to follow Jesus (e.g. Matthew 19:27) and then letting Him bring all of His promises and teachings to fulfillment in their midst (e.g., John 15:15).
Christian denominations treat the New Testament too much as if it were "the church's book," allocating to themselves an unwarranted freedom to interpret it according to their tradition instead of living in a disciplined way under the natural and literal sense of the text. Denominations unwittingly operate under a very dangerous principle: "it's OK to disobey, as long as we do it together."6 However, if they knew the fear of God they would not think that way. The fear of God would cause them to remember that a very holy God is continually reading our minds and hearts. The fear of God would cause them to remember that all of us -- Christian and non-Christian alike -- will give an account of every word that has proceeded from our mouths and of every interpretation that we have placed upon His Word. If we know the fear of God, the thought of Him declaring to us in our judgment that we are guilty of ignoring, disobeying or "filtering" His Word should make us very determined to avoid doing so. Where is the fear of God in Christianity? Do you know the fear of God?
Those of us who spend any time at all reading are already quite accustomed to taking things we read in their natural, literal sense: it is our normal and default way of interpreting anything we read. We know quite easily when we are encountering literary devices such as poetry, metaphor and simile. Apparently, it is only with their Scriptures that Christians feel free to abandon the method of interpretation they normally use everywhere else. I do not know how many times I have heard Christians accusing other Christians of "slavish literalism" over a point of interpretation, when all those other Christians were doing was refusing to explain away the natural meaning of the text. And so, Mennonites are considered "slavishly literal" in their interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount; Roman Catholics are "slavishly literal" in their interpretation of the Eucharistic passages; Fundamentalists are "slavishly literal" in their interpretation of the creation narrative in Genesis 1-6. Apparently, the natural interpretation of language becomes "slavish literalism" when you cannot find it in you to read it the way it was written. Yet, can you imagine how ridiculous those same people would consider someone else if, for example, they were not "slavishly literal" before a judge on a matter of the law, or before their boss in a matter of company policy, or before a policeman about a "40 MPH" sign, or to their parents regarding household chores: "You mean you actually wanted me to take your words literally?" They wouldn't dream of using that kind of feeble excuse before human beings who expected their authority to be taken seriously; and yet they dare to imagine that their holy God will let them get away with using it before Him. If we behave so casually toward the Scriptures, it can only mean that we do not yet understand the true nature of holiness and the seriousness of His purpose.
How is it that one tradition's literal truth can become another tradition's "poetry"? Perhaps it is because of some good grammatical and exegetical reason. But in the fear of the living God, let's make sure we are not preferring a "filtered," poetic interpretation because of:
Have you ever wondered what a Christianity would look like that consistently embraced and built upon all the New Testament Scriptures, receiving them in their straightforward sense? I have, for years now. This book is an attempt to do just that for you. Careful and creative Biblical literalism does not lead to the Protestant Fundamentalism that we know. For those who yearn for unity among committed Biblical Christians, it leads instead to fulfilling what is of God within all Christian traditions. Among those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, it enables the formation of a society that has within itself the solution to the problems of the nations. And as we shall see in marital relations, for example, this careful obedience to the text of the New Testament leads, not to the guilty sex associated with Puritanism, but to a childlike and spontaneous giving of pleasure to one another.7 Can you feel the excitement of that kind of Christianity? Learning to take the New Testament more literally is another integral part of the restoration of apostolic Christianity.8 If there is only one thing you take away with you from reading this book, please let it be this: God intends for His Scriptures to be interpreted, obeyed and experienced far more literally than is being done among Christians. This ought to be obvious even to a casual intelligent reader of the New Testament. But Christian traditions have heaped so much obscurity over clear Scriptures for so long, that Christians usually need help in order to recognize the self-evident nature of what is self-evident -- even of what is sometimes self-evident to non-Christians. Think of Mahatma Gandhi, for example. Even though he was not a Christian, and (sadly) never became a Christian, when he read the New Testament it was self-evident to him that when Jesus taught Christians to turn the other cheek when facing and combating evil, He actually meant to be obeyed! And that is what he set out to do. In that one point Gandhi was more obedient to Jesus than were his supposedly Christian British overlords. By simply reading the New Testament as if it were written to be understood, he began walking in a non-violent way of life that originally characterized all Christians.
There is really nothing very exotic about what it takes to restore the church to her apostolic foundations. No special revelations are necessary, merely the determination to obey every command and believe every teaching and promise, no matter what the cost; God will do His part. How radically Biblical are you prepared to be for the sake of God's kingdom and glory?
An imagined ecumenical gathering
Imagine a gathering of representatives from such diverse traditions as listed in the beginning of this Introduction. Imagine them to be people who truly do represent their denominations at their best: not "young Turk" radicals full of anger at "the establishment," but people motivated by a desire to build up the church and individuals. There are many personal ministries among them: pastors, scholars, monks and nuns, social workers, leaders of communities, therapists. Each of them has become especially sensitized to the concerns natural to his profession: for a just and intimate society, for providing relief to the poor and the lonely, for deep and clear thinking, for prayerfulness and God-centeredness, for good order and discipline, for personal growth and excellent family relationships. Imagine further that, for all of their diversity, these men and women are ardent disciples of Jesus Christ, and each is much more committed to Biblical revelation than to his respective denominational or theological tradition. Being gathered together in some marvelous and mysterious way (if only I knew how!), these leaders are charged with coming to a common mind in order to raise up a blueprint for a Christianity which satisfies all that is godly within their respective traditions, and in a form which fulfills the human needs to which they have become sensitive because of their personal ministries. These leaders agree on the following procedural principle: they are bound to accept the clear and simple intent of Scripture, no matter how radical, how liberal, how conservative or how out of step with the times it may appear to be. They also look to the church's spokesmen of the first several centuries for important clues about apostolic Christianity, yet do not allow their high regard for that period to weaken the preeminence of the Scriptures. Given all of the above, what would come into being? The following chapters attempt to describe just that.
From whole-hearted Anabaptist disciples, for example, we would learn to take the Sermon on the Mount as a way of life instead of as a vague ideal. From them we would also learn to baptize only those who have publicly committed themselves to walk as disciples.
From similarly consecrated Anglican disciples, we would learn how to recognize and warmly receive the best in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, and to bring the highest achievements of our cultures into the service of God's kingdom.
From Catholic disciples (Roman and Eastern Orthodox) we would learn to take seriously the promises about an authority-filled church, to honor vowed poverty and celibacy, to incorporate confession of sin and fasting into our way of life, and to understand the tremendous importance of serious systematic theology and sacramental piety.
From Charismatic disciples we would learn to expect the Spirit of God and the promises of God to be as operative today as in apostolic times.
From communal Christians (whether monastic or family-oriented) we would learn to be more serious about having all things in common, and how to restore the social nature of the church.
And, marvel of marvels, from disciples that we may rightfully judge to be too liberal in many important areas, we may learn some of the most important instincts of all: compassion for the downtrodden and a determination to bring relief to them. Without their humane instincts, we conservative, "Bible-believing Christians" may wind up sharing the most fiery regions of hell-fire with the Pharisees of old.9
There would, of course, be many other denominational contributions than these. I challenge you to believe that the pieces of the "puzzle" which is apostolic Christianity already exist, isolated within existing denominations, movements and traditions of Christendom, sometimes almost swallowed up by carnality and counterfeit. Christians have attempted man's form of ecumenism, trying to bring their denominations together through such organizations as the World Council of Churches and the Consultation on Church Union, but in vain: "unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it" (Psalm 127:1). Now it is God's turn to show us His idea of the Spirit's unity. And it is going to turn out to be much, much more marvelously concrete than the vague unity created by "agreeing to disagree over 'non-essentials' as long as we are united in the Lordship of Christ." That attitude may sound nice on paper, and is certainly to be much preferred over clubbing each other, but it produces nothing like the tightly-knit brotherhood of the Christianity that God intends to restore. During the past few centuries of new covenant history, while many of us thought Christian and other movements were simply "happening," God has actually been exercising the same Lordship over history that we see Him doing over the centuries in the Old Testament period. He has been restoring the pieces of apostolic Christianity: its gospel, its doctrine, its way of life, its community and the way into its spiritual anointing. And, again, here is the blessed and exciting hope: the pieces are all in existence; the time of His putting them together is upon us! Praise God!
After first receiving Christ in college, I set out to understand the nature of true Christianity, a decision that led to 9 more years of full-time theological and historical study. Sadly, the deeper I got into the academic life of compromised Christianity, with its "higher criticism," the more compromised my own Christianity became. The more I thought I knew what was true, the more vague "truth" seemed to become. I was unwittingly fulfilling one of the undesirable promises of Scripture concerning the last days -- always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 3:1, 7). And finally, the time came when I slid back -- far back -- into the spiritual wasteland of secularism, unbelief, and carnality: how dark and unclean that whole time seems to me now! However, our heavenly Father brought me back to a disciple's walk with Christ in 1972. And in that return I had now come around full-circle, back to the simplicity in which I had begun my Christian walk. I came back to Christ with a heartfelt commitment that I would always receive the doctrines and disciplines of His Scriptures in their full radicalness, regardless of how much such a reception might shame me or demand change in me. I continue regularly to be put to shame by His word, and I have been required by that Word to cross over numerous theological boundaries since then. I am not very impressed with the depth at which I live out the radical teachings in this book (let alone in His Book); but I do believe in them with all my heart. I pray that you will come to do so also.
3 We are of course referring only to the kind of baptism that is described in the New Testament. There should be no presumption, for example, that infants are being included in this conversation. <back>
5 E.g., believing literally with St. Peter that "baptism saves you," but believing equally literally the truth that faith in Christ is what saves, and then only baptizing those who confess Christ personally and pledge to be his disciples. <back>
6 I am not implying that they are so callous as to consciously believe and express their attitude that way. But such is the way they behave and, in my opinion, the way God looks at it. When they set aside a biblical tradition they have been observing, or when they refuse to implement a biblical tradition that they ought to be practicing, you can be sure that that "safety in numbers" attitude is very much involved. Anyone who loves the Scriptures and has taken part in his denomination's debates on the issues of our day will have seen that attitude at work repeatedly. <back>
8 As we have already inferred, taking texts in their literal and straightforward sense does not always mean that there is always only one straightforward interpretation, or that the most correct of several possible literal interpretations will always be obvious. There are times when the Hebrew or Greek can readily be interpreted in several ways; but you will find, however, that these ambiguities are few and far between. The New Testament is amazingly understandable, once we have become committed to obey what we read. <back>
9 At this Thanksgiving, as I write this footnote, guess which is the only congregation that is feeding the homeless in the town where I live: yes, one of those "nasty liberals." Now I'll grant you that many -- perhaps most -- of those that Evangelical Christians categorize as liberals are simply children of the god of this world, having no hope or thought of eternal life -- I was enrolled in their ranks for some years. Nevertheless, there are some among them who are marvelously hidden disciples of Christ. Perhaps in their youth they erroneously thought they had to choose between their instincts for compassion and an ideology that falsely advertised itself as Bible-believing champions of the faith delivered unto the saints. Perhaps they could sense somehow that that ideology was in fact full of what God will judge to be uncompassionate materialism. And when they mistakenly thought they had to choose between compassion and the Scriptures, they chose compassion. For all these misguided years they have been rejecting a "Bible" that never was His Bible at all, rejecting a "church" in which the lamp stands of His kingdom had been missing all along (Revelation 2:5). But because they are His sheep -- His amazingly hidden sheep -- they will recognize the true Christ when they see Him -- the Christ who turns your values upside-down. And they will recognize His true way of discipleship and His true brotherhood when they see it. And they will surrender their minds and hearts to His revelation, and will prove to be among His kingdom's most distinguished citizens. If the thought of such strange company seems offensive, think of how Simon the fiery nationalistic Zealot and Matthew the Quisling tax collector must have felt in each other's presence. <back>