“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglectedf the weightier matters of the law: justice, and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23, ESV).
These days the idea of returning to the Bible and the Bible alone is deemed anachronistic, even within the halls of Churches of Christ. They offer instead some vague notion of recovering the “weightier matters of the law,” such as grace, holiness, or love.
Strangely they seem unable to offer an alternative to going back to the scriptures to achieve this end.
It makes me think of something Churchill said about democracy:
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” (Speech in the House of Commons, 1947).
I suppose there is a danger when we go back to scripture seeking a pattern for the church that we will miss the theological forest for the trees. I have observed from time to time that while we get such things right as the names of the church, or its terms of entrance that we forget to teach on “justice, and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23).
I do not think that this is attributable to our back to the Bible plea.
This is simply human nature. Flawed human beings find it hard to be just and holy, easier to have the “right name” on a sign outside the building.
But it is my contention that if we respect scripture as God’s word, we will not miss its central messages. The following are some alternatives to going back to the Bible that have been tried and found wanting:
1. Constitutional: In this approach a church would determine its doctrines and beliefs and record them in a document. Many such documents have arisen since the New Testament. The Council of Nicaea (325), the Council of Chalcedon (451), and the Westminster Confession of Faith represent just a few. The obvious drawback to this approach is that such a document would be the product of human beings, fallible, and stunningly unwise compared to God.
2. Dictatorial: In this approach, the church chooses an individual — a human being — who ultimately decides what the church believes. This approach also fails at the level of its human origin. No man, even a good man, is sufficiently wise to lead God’s people. What is more, most men in positions of power fall to the temptations of power: Pride, corruption and so on. As Lord Acton observed, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
3. Democratic: In this approach the church meets periodically and debates issues and doctrines, voting on proposals and putting the results forward as this particular denomination’s beliefs. While this approach might correspond with our disposition for the democratic ideal, it too fails at the point of its human origin. My grandfather used to say, “If a thousand people are doing a stupid thing … it’s still a stupid thing.” Those who debate the issues and those who vote on them are mere humans with the typical failings of mere humans.
The fact is that no one has found an approach that is better than going back to the scriptures. Far from driving us away from the central themes of scripture, those who seek to restore New Testament Christianity find this approach a self-correcting mechanism; when we veer too far to the right or to the left, upon our return to God’s word we will have corrected ourselves.
So I have just one question for you: When fellowships depend on any other method, what would bring them back into faithful service for God?
The record of humans bringing themselves back to God by their own devices is about as bleak as the record of the Washington Generals playing the Harlem Globe Trotters! (For the record, their last victory was in 1971).
What is the alternative for going back to the Bible? There isn’t one (Colossians 3:17).