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May 3, 2009

Rebuilding the Church?

Long ago, in sub-Saharan Africa, a mutation appeared in the red blood cells of some people. It was a strange, sickle-shaped, red blood cell. This new blood cell did two things. It offered a defense against malaria, but it shortened the life expectancy of those who were born with it—42 years for men, 48 for women. The trait continues, even in this country, among those whose ancestors came from that part of the world.

Sickle cell anemia provides an analogy for what has happened to the Christian church over many generations. This or that mutation has provided an apparent benefit, but at a cost—call it spiritual anemia. It is easy to look at churches other than our own and see that their DNA is flawed. Early on, in an effort to get clear of Judaism, some Christians shed the Law—call it antinomianism after the Greek anti and nomos (law). They got free, but at a cost. They lost the revelation of moral and ethical conduct provided by the law and became morally anemic.

Another early mutation of the church earned the name Arianism, after one Arius who argued that Christ was a created being and not on a par with God. The churches fought this off and won, but not without cost. The doctrine of the Trinity, while providing an answer to the problem and squelching Arianism as the sickle-cell stopped malaria, carried its own loss. It diminished the idea of family which was Jesus’ chosen analogy for the divine relationship.

We can easily see what is wrong with other Christian traditions, but what is not so easy to see is how our own DNA is flawed. One would have to be blind not to see the vulnerability to a variety of nutty heresies that eat away at the foundation of the church like so many termites.

In our own tradition, we were able to resolve some of the problems of ages past, restoring the idea of the Family of God and rejecting antinomianism, but we introduced our own mutations. For example, with the publication of C. Paul Meredith’s Satan’s Great Deception, we fought off much of the pagan symbolism which had crept into Christianity. It was a useful medication, but it carried a side effect that I dubbed Radical Anti-Paganism (RAP). This developed into a witch hunt, condemning innocuous customs such as the wedding ring and the celebration of birthdays. We needed to break with the pagan origins connected with Christmas. Some all but denied the Nativity of Jesus which was a pivotal event in God’s plan for redeeming mankind—Christ come in the flesh. An old simile involving babies and bath water comes to mind.

In the process of restoring the Law of God to the esteem of Christians, we tried to restore the health of the moral base of the church. But other mutations began to appear. In restoring the value of the Hebrew Scriptures, some got confused and began to consider the Hebrew language itself as somehow sacred—the language Jesus and the Father spoke at home. Thus, the names of the Father and Jesus in Hebrew became sacred. Yet, not one of the writers of the Bible ever considered Hebrew sacred. The authors of every New Testament book wrote in Greek and translated Hebrew names into Greek freely, in many cases making no attempt at transliteration. When citing Old Testament passages which contained the Hebrew name of God, YHWH, they followed the custom of the Jews of the day and rendered it Kurios, Lord.

I’m not sure where churches in our tradition went wrong, but the fallout of church members into heresy seems inordinately high. So, what is wrong with our spiritual DNA? What mutation served a useful purpose in one situation, but carried a high cost in another? Whence comes the spiritual anemia that has so afflicted us since the fall of the WCG?

The appeal of the Armstrongs tended to follow three tracks, Prophecy, the Law, and the Old Testament. The argument that neither the Old Testament nor the Law had been abolished opened the Bible further than many had ever experienced, and we came to relish Bible study again.

Included in RAP was a strong anti-Trinitarian argument that posited a pagan origin for the doctrine of the Trinity. It seems more likely, historically, that the doctrine was developed as a response to the unitarian beliefs of early Christian Pharisees, as well as the Arianism bedeviling the church in the fourth century and threatening the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus. The doctrine of the Trinity may have been a flawed response, but it isn’t necessary to think it was deliberately borrowed from paganism.

As it happened, the official doctrine of the Armstrongs agreed with the Trinitarians so far as accepting the pre-existence of Jesus, his divinity and his uncreated nature. They were nowhere near the unitarian view. That said, our Christology received far too little attention. Paul would have rapped our knuckles on this issue with his “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2 NIV).

All this had the effect of isolating the church from other Christians to a greater degree than the Sabbath and the Law would have otherwise done. RAP, in particular, stamped other churches with the epithet “pagan,” and assumed a superiority that was simply not justified. Some went so far as to argue that people who went to church on Sunday were worshiping Nimrod—or even the devil.

 And at the same time, too little attention was given to the one and only foundation of the church:

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-11 NIV).

The foundation of the church is not Judaism, Abraham, the Law, the Prophets, the Hebrew language, or anything other than Jesus Christ. But even on the foundation of Christ, one can build poorly. Paul cautioned those who were doing the building to be careful how they built.

If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (vv. 12-15).

These words mean more to me today than ever before because we saw a clear example of what happened to a church organization that was not properly built on the only foundation. Herbert Armstrong’s work has been shown for what it was. He was very attentive as to how he built with brick and mortar. But he was less attentive and less aware of the materials being used in building the real church. Just look at what happened to the church after his death, and no argument is left. Something was wrong, somewhere.

There is a remnant who have remained faithful to the core vision, but they are constantly bedeviled by heresy, particularly those heresies that diminish Jesus and which John labeled “the spirit of antichrist.” Where have we gone wrong, and what has happened to our spiritual DNA? And, more important than that, what can we do about it now?

It seems that the answer lies in a long term project of clearing away the rubble from the only real foundation, and building with gold, silver, and precious stones instead of wood, hay, and stubble.

The first step is to lay aside Radical Anti-Paganism. Yes, I agree that we must not use pagan practices and symbols to worship Christ, but that need not be carried to extremes. What is wrong with RAP is that it provides an alternative road to feeling good about ourselves, to righteousness, when the real road is Jesus Christ—the way, the truth and the life. The Law is good if a man uses it lawfully but, used as an alternative to kneeling at the feet of Jesus, it has led man down the wrong path. The churches in our tradition have a flaw in their DNA that leads to division and more division. It happened because we let ourselves be distracted from the Real Jesus of the New Covenant. It created a false sense of righteousness and even superiority over other people who call themselves Christian when, in fact, we have been just as anemic as they.

During the heyday of Herbert Armstrong, the church handled heresy by exclusion. Doctrinal purity was preserved by not allowing the church to be exposed to bad bacteria. The result is similar to what happens to children who aren’t allowed to play in the dirt. Their immune systems are weakened because their bodies haven’t learned what to do with bad germs. As a result, once removed from the protective nest of the church, we don’t have the antibodies to resist disease.

Having laid aside RAP, the cure lies in raising up a new generation of saints built firmly upon the foundation of the church which is Jesus Christ and him alone. Unlike Paul, I am no master builder, but I can see where the building has been put together shabbily, where the foundation has been undermined, and where poor materials have been used.

With Christ as my guide, I want to do my part to repair the breach, provide better materials for others to use, and to focus on Jesus Christ and him crucified. I have this work to do because I built so poorly myself in years past. It may be the reason God has not allowed me to retire, even at age 75.

My old friend Charles Hunting used to say, “If the devil can’t get at you any other way, he will waste your time.” We have wasted enough time. Don’t bother trying to rescue heretics. “Go from a foolish man when you perceive not in him the lips of knowledge.” Don’t argue. Just walk away. Moreover, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (2 John 1:10-11 NIV). It doesn’t matter how nice he is. After reading all the way through the letters of John in the past few days, I have come to see John’s reference to “your house” as a reference to the specific problem under discussion and to receiving such into a house church.

There comes a time to take in the welcome mat where some teachers are concerned. But that won’t help unless the foundation is restored. That said, the most important course of action is to beef up our Christology. I heard a song a few nights ago that made me sit bolt upright, grab the Bible, and turn to Galatians. The lady was singing about her struggle “until Christ be formed in me.” I found the reference. Paul to the Galatians: “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you ” (Galatians 4:19 KJV).

This is the labor that lies before us: Get out some stakes and mark the corners of our foundation. Don’t include anything that doesn’t belong there. If it isn’t Christ, it does not belong there. The primary building materials are found in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The rest of the New Testament tells us how the First Christians built. Other building materials lie in the Law and the prophets. They, too, are built on Christ.

We can overcome the weakness in our DNA, but I don’t think we can do it by attempting to remodel the old building. The foundation is weak and the materials are shabby. Sometimes, you just have to start over. I’m not sure what that will ultimately involve, but I think I understand the fundamental problem. I know who is in charge of the project.

This is one of Paul’s longest sentences, but it builds to a climax and underlines everything I have been saying. I’ll close with it:

That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all (Ephesians 1:17-23).

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