One of the distinctive traits of Churches of Christ has been its commitment to Biblical faithfulness. This is why we send our men to ministry training schools that have an emphasis on studying the text of the Bible.
As I consider my own experience, I am challenged by a deficiency that I have both witnessed and been a part of. When I was younger, I remember sitting in countless Bible classes learning what was in various books of the Bible. I also remember studying various doctrines of the Bible in various classes. Often the emphasis was on what made us different than other churches. Most of these had to do with worship practices, baptism, and the institutional structure of the church. Eventually, this became how we identified ourselves as being "faithful."
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the "consumerism" of our culture may have been a contributing factor toward this. There were churches all over town with whom we were competing with. With all the choices in the religious marketplace, which one should a person go to? Every aspect of life in our modern culture presents an array of choices. As a result, the producers of these goods "market" their product. Many churches inadvertently followed the same mindset. Every church had a bit of a competitive marketing involved in its outreach. They all emphasized different things, but we emphasized that we were the purest and trust church of all without all the denominational baggage. We didn't have all the "additives." We were "organic," so-to-speak. "Choose us, we are closest to the original first century church." Were we really, or did we fall short of the full picture of what the church is to be like? Were we truly free of "additives" as we claimed to be, or were there other "additives" there that we were not aware of? I have to wonder, if there were no "competition" in the church market, how would we have identified ourselves then? We certainly would not have emphasized out distinctiveness in the same way.
After re-reading the Gospels, I am convinced that the most important aspects of what the Church of our Lord is supposed to look like was missing. In the studies of the doctrine of the church, I remember very little references to the Gospels, except for Peter's confession and Jesus' response when he said "I will build MY church" in Matthew 16:18. This emphasis came from a desire to identify ourselves as distinct from denominations. This is "Christ's" church, not Luther's church, Wesley's church, etc. I remember a few years ago hearing a preacher say that no one wants to preach Matthew 16:18 any more. As the sermon progressed, it became clear that what he was talking about was more of the same distinctive marks that we have emphasized in the past. However, there is so much more in the Gospels about the church than this. In fact, I am beginning to understand that the heart of what the church is supposed to look like comes from the Gospel writers. The instructions from Jesus in the Gospels were not intended to be individualistic, but communal. The individualism that characterizes our culture usually causes us to apply Jesus' instructions on the individual level but miss the significant of the communal level. As God's people, we are to be a kingdom of priests, a light to the nations, a city set on a hill. That can only happen on a communal level. The message of Christ began and ended with the Reign of God as its central motif, and the Reign of God consists of a "community" of believers that collectively demonstrate the Reign of God as a kingdom of priests.
What are the marks of the Reign of God? That is a different question than "How are we distinct from denominations?" The Sermon on the Mount is a good place to start on identifying the marks of the Reign of God. . In fact, the very first Beatitude identifies the Reign of God as consisting of those who are poor in spirit.
Jesus said there that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Keep in mind that the Greek, nomos, "law" is the translation for the Hebrew word, torah. Torah does not merely mean law, as in a code, but means "instruction." In fact, the verb form of the word, torah, means "to instruct." So when God handed down his Torah in Exodus, he was instructing the people on how to live under his reign. As a "kingdom" of priests under God's reign (Ex 19:1-6), they were to embody God's ideal as a light to the nations. However, Israel failed dismally. They thought like and acted like the kingdoms around them.
Jesus came to fulfill Torah, not abolish it. In other words, Jesus is the embodiment of the ideal subject under the reign of God. When God first established his reign in Israel, Israel failed to demonstrate the ideal. So Jesus came to demonstrate what the reign of God looks like. I challenge you to read through it carefully and list the identifying marks of the Reign of God, especially the last couple of sections of the sermon.
Here is the irony. People like that preacher that said we don't like to preach Matthew 16:18 are themselves probably missing what it is all about. The Church of "Christ" is more than institutional structures. The Reign of God is more than Cappella singing. It is about following in Christ's footsteps in every way. Do we really follow in his footsteps in every way?
Here is where the challenge came. We "knew" a lot of scripture. However, Jesus puts the emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount not just on "knowing," but on doing. Many people are on the broad way that leads to destruction. Not everyone who says Lord Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who listen and do the words of the sermon are like a wise man who builds his house on a solid foundation. For those who read and know but do not do….well, does the Reign of God really exist there?
As important as Bible study is, the purpose is not merely to accumulate academic knowledge, but to lean "how to" think, act, and live under God's reign. Knowing AND doing ALL of God's word…that is biblical faithfulness.