Is the Church a Reed or a Pillar?
Jesus once asked regarding John the Baptizer: “What went ye out into the wilderness to behold? a reed shaken with the wind?” (Matthew 11:7). A reed is a symbol of instability; it pictures that which yields to other forces. On the other hand, Paul described the church as the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The imagery here is that of a solid, immovable foundation.
It is a question that the church of today must ask. Are we a “reed shaken in the wind,” or are we the “pillar and ground of the truth”?
Influence is a powerful thing. Every person both influences and is influenced by others in varying degrees. Jesus stressed the importance of godly influence when he compared his disciples to salt (Matthew 5:13); at other times he warned of the “leaven” of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6). Paul cautioned about the power of bad influences when he noted that “evil companionships corrupt good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33, ASV). The Greek word for “companionships” is homilia, having to do with association, hence here denotes “bad company” (Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 568). There is a tendency to be like those we run with.
The Influence of the Early Church
It is a remarkable historical reality that the church of Jesus Christ, as constituted in the initial centuries of its existence, was a body of tremendous influence. In point of fact, it revolutionized the antique world. The Lord hinted of this in his prophetic parable of the leaven (Matthew 13:33).
Historians have noted that as a consequence of the sway of Christianity, many evils of the ancient world were abolished, or at least curtailed (e.g., crucifixion, the brutal gladiatorial games, slavery, the abuse of women, infanticide). Even skeptics have acknowledged such. British philosopher Bertrand Russell conceded that the influence of Christianity “remains the inspiration of much that is most hopeful in our somber world” (1950, 137).
It is not without significance, however, that during this time frame, when the church was exerting such a wonderful impact, it was being persecuted bitterly.
Then a strange thing happened. In A.D. 313, Constantine issued his famous Edict of Toleration, which brought an end to Christian persecution, and which, unhappily, accelerated an era of spiritual decline. Christianity even became a “state religion,” and, ultimately, the church was “baptized” in an atmosphere that can only be described as “this-world-ness.” (Note: for an interesting survey of this period, see Jesse Lyman Hurlbut’s, The Story of the Christian Church, chapter IX, “The Imperial Church.”)
And so, great and devastating changes were wrought which resulted finally in an egregious, fully-organized apostasy, the residue of which abides to this day.
The concept of restoring pristine Christianity was revolutionary, both in Europe and in America. Courageous pioneers sought a return to the original pattern; the idea caught on, and the cause of the “ancient order” spread like a prairie fire across the frontier during the waning days of the nineteenth century. In the late 1800s, students of the old Nashville Bible School (later named after David Lipscomb) baptized some five thousand souls in a five-year period.
In the early portion of the last century, the Lord’s church was the fastest growing body in America. A typical example of the influence of the church was seen in the Tabernacle Meetings conducted by N. B. Hardeman in the early 1920s. When the first meeting was held in March-April of 1922, the old Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee was “packed and jammed” with six to eight thousand people, with an estimated two to three thousand being turned away (Hardeman 1922, 11). And there was no compromise of doctrine in Hardeman’s sermons! Those were glorious days for the kingdom of Christ.
But in the early decades of the previous century, something else was happening. A movement known as modernism was evolving; it reflected an inclination to reject the concept of propositional truth based upon divine authority. Men like Presbyterian clergyman Harry E. Fosdick (1878-1969) argued that the Bible had developed along evolutionary lines, and they rejected the supernatural elements of Scripture.
This ideology became pervasive in both Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. And even a major component of the “restoration” heritage (the Disciples of Christ) was seriously influenced by this heresy.
More recently, modernism has been succeeded by a philosophy known as postmodernism. This dogma, more dangerous even than modernism, is a mid-to-late-twentieth-century theory of knowledge which contends that there is no such thing as real knowledge—at least in the objective sense. One writer says that postmodernism reflects a “rebellion against all aspects of the modern culture that had prevailed in the West since the late 19th century” (Dever 2000, 30).
Postmodernism has impacted the religious community at large in a devastating fashion, and the churches of Christ have been significantly influenced by this ideology as well. (Note: for an excellent treatment of postmodernism as it relates to the church, see Adrift: Postmodernism in the Church by Phil Sanders.)
The “Trendy” Church
Over the past several decades, there has developed a growing mentality among some in the church that we are an outmoded organism. We have lost touch with the “now” generation; it is therefore imperative (they say) that we upscale the church. We must make it more “trendy.” Whence the origin of this disposition?
There is a cultural phenomenon that may be described figuratively as societal osmosis. This is the recognition that environmental influences silently and slowly move from one realm to another.
Here is a tragic but realistic fact: the trends of secular society, to a significant degree, filter into the religious fabric of our culture. There is no better example of this than the current endorsement of homosexual unions in some of the historic Protestant sects. That which once was an abomination is fashionable now.
Further, the contaminated elements of “Christendom,” in differing proportions, ultimately trickle into the church. Not a few citizens of Christ’s kingdom are like the Israel of Samuel’s day; they lust to be like the nations (churches) round about (1 Samuel 8:5). Consider briefly some of the major changes that have been observable in the church over the past several decades.
(1) Though a few radical “voices of concern” (e.g., Carl Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett) were being raised a third of a century ago, scarcely anyone would have dreamed that high-powered people in some of our major schools would be calling now for an ecumenical blending with denominationalists in these swaddling days of the new millennium. And yet, voices as sectarian as anything imaginable are now frequent and unrestrained within our midst.
No longer is J. D. Tant’s quip, “Brethren, we are drifting,” apropos. We are rushing with a full head of steam toward a “Casey Jones” disaster!
(2) We are progressively departing from a dependence upon the New Testament as the authoritative source of instruction in religion and ethics, toward a subjective, get-in-touch-with-your-feelings philosophy. Many congregations no longer have substantial Bible classes where the word of God is explored deeply and taught powerfully, with solid application made to Christian living. Rather, we have “sharing” sessions wherein we “testify” of exciting events we’ve experienced in the workplace.
Even some of our Bible class literature (not a little of which has been transported from denominational publishing concerns) is filled with people-centered scenarios—“What would you do if you were in Johnny’s place?”—with only a biblical veneer.
At the same time, a new hermeneutic has evolved by which the authority of apostolic example is questioned, the concept of necessary inference is ridiculed, the matter of the silence of the Scriptures is deemed to be a pure fabrication, and, incredibly, the notion is advocated that the issue of authority is, in the final analysis, irrelevant anyway!
(3) The influence of society’s feminists is being felt in the church. As denominational groups ordain female “priests” and “clergy,” congregations of the Lord’s people, from Connecticut to California, are opting for “an expanded role” for women. Church after church is announcing that Christian ladies will be progressively employed in leadership roles.
The New Testament subordination of women is viewed as a cultural oddity of the first-century—with little, if any, application for today. Again, some of our institutions of higher education are leading the way in this digression.
(4) When Hollywood blazed the trail in serial “marriages,” many wondered if small-town America could be far behind—it wasn’t. Now the same pattern is seen running rampant in the church.
“Single-again” groups are in vogue. Experts in “marriage enrichment” skills are in great demand, while the seminar directors generally are careful to throw a wide loop that avoids confrontation with the biblical law of divorce and remarriage. Every sort of quirky notion imaginable, the design of which is to “sanctify” adulterous liaisons, has surfaced in recent years.
While we must have sincere compassion for those who are victims of divorce, the compromise of biblical truth is not a solution for these heartaches.
(5) Just as the world of denominationalism has been gimmick-driven in recent years, so our people have not been far behind. We have explored every mechanism under the sun for attracting the public’s attention. We have offered a variety of classes (somewhat analogous to a community college) and a host of public services within our neighborhoods, in hopes of enticing the baby-boomers and Generation X. All the while, we largely have ignored the very thing responsible for our greatest success—the wonderful and simple proclamation of the gospel.
While some labor under the illusion that the modern world no longer wants the message of a dusty book, twenty centuries old, actually, just the reverse is true. Many are starving for spiritual truth; rich Bible teaching, presented by instructors who are excited about the treasures of Scripture, is attracting the attention of a whole new generation of lost people.
(6) The denominational world has evinced little interest in the teaching of the New Testament in terms of a divinely-authorized worship format. Will-worship (Colossian 2:23), for the most part, has been the order of the day.
With roots that reach deep into paganism, Catholicism has been steeped in pageantry for centuries. Early Protestantism attempted to remedy that; Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, and other notable Protestant scholars, for example, expressed strong views against the use of instrumental music in Christian worship. Ferguson has noted that the expression A cappella (which refers to purely vocal music) literally means “in the style of the church.” His exhaustive research led to this conclusion:
The classical form of church music is unaccompanied song. To abstain from the use of the instrument is not a peculiar aberration of “a frontier American sect”; this was easily, until comparatively recent times, the majority tradition of Christian history (1972).
Now, almost thirty years removed from Ferguson’s comment, it is not at all uncommon to hear prominent brethren arguing that instrumental music is a non-issue that certainly ought not to be treated as a test of Christian fellowship. Note this quotation: “There should be room in the Christian fellowship for those who differ on . . . whether instrumental music is used in worship” (Osburn 1993, 90).
Osburn is a professor at Abilene Christian University. It is almost certain that conditions are developing among churches of Christ that eventually will accommodate a large-scale introduction of innovations into congregational worship. Even now, a number of sizable churches, following the lead of denominational groups, are staggering their services, providing a “traditional” worship format for the older generation (dare we say, “fogies”?), then also a “jazzed-up” service is arranged for those who are more “contemporary.” (For an assessment of this procedure from a denominational viewpoint, see Veith 2000, 4-5).
Too, it is a sad commentary on our attitude toward the hours of sacred worship that our dress has degenerated to the exceedingly casual, not to mention sloppy. In a recent gospel meeting, a song leader was adorned in a tee-shirt and jeans; sandals and shorts are observable not infrequently in some places; neckties are becoming rarer at the Lord’s table, etc.
What has happened to our sense of reverence for the solemnity of the occasion? What impression do we convey to visitors from the community? Contrast the decorum of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as they proceed from door to door, impeccably dressed, with the bedraggled appearance of some Christians in the worship assemblies.
In his letter to the saints in Rome, Paul instructed the brethren to “be not fashioned according to the world” (Romans 12:2). The present imperative form of the verb means, “stop being fashioned [conformed – KJV]!” The principle involved in this admonition is broad in its application.
Barclay attempts to catch the spirit of it:
Don’t try to match your life to all the fashions of this world; don’t be like the chameleon which takes its colour from its surroundings; don’t go with the world; don’t let the world decide what you are going to be like (1957, 170).
Let us summon the courage to make the appropriate applications, yielding to truth and common sense, rather than to the fickle trends of an unspiritual society.
For additional information, see these articles:
- Arndt, William and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Barclay, William. 1957. The Letter to the Romans. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press.
- Dever, William G. 2000. Save Us from Postmodern Malakey. Biblical Archaeology Review, March-April.
- Ferguson, Everett. 1972. A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church. Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press.
- Hardeman, N. B. 1922. Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons. Nashville, TN: McQuiddy.
- Hurlbut, Jesse Lyman. 1954. The Story of the Christian Church. Philadelphia, PA: John C. Winston Co.
- Osborne, Carroll D. 1993. The Peacable Kingdom. Abilene, TX: Restoration Perspectives.
- Russell, Bertrand. 1950. Unpoplular Essays. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Sanders, Phil. 2000. Adrift: Postmodernism in the Church. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
- Veith, Gene Edward. 2000. The Cute, the Cool, and the Catechized: Generational Segregation in the Church. For the Life of the World, Journal of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, July.