This month: 190 - Legalism & Progressivism
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Jeremy Kughn

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Choose one of each:  Alabama or Auburn.  Anti-Vax or Pro-Vax.  King James or NIV.  Republican or Democrat.  Liberal or Conservative. 

Personally one of the most difficult times in my life was when, in college, I was hired by a known “liberal congregation” as a campus ministry intern.  My history as an ultra-conservative-right-winged-speak-where-the-bible-speaks-and-stay-silent-where-the-bible-is-silent-church-of-christ-christian had been well known among my peers.  My friends had begun to sense that my allegiances to that side were changing, but the hiring made it official and those once very loyal friends began to tease me about going to hell, have late night heated debate sessions in my dorm room, or write me off altogether as a former friend.

This wasn’t anything new.  One could give different options in the first century.  Choose one of each:  Jew or Gentile.  Circumcision Group or Un-circumcision Group (Gal. 2:11-14).  Worship on this mountain or Jerusalem (Jn. 4:20).

What is it that continuously seeks to divide people from each other?  It certainly isn’t the way of Jesus.  At least not to the extent in which our own tribe (Churches of Christ) has continued to behave towards one another.  One might respond, “Well then, what about Jesus’ own words?”  Luke plainly states in Jesus’ own words, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-51 NIV).  One might also reference another passage in Luke where Simeon prophesies about Jesus, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against…” (Luke 2:34).  At first glance this doesn’t seem to be the peaceful Jesus that scripture portrays.  I remember at one point in my life believing that these verses reaffirmed my legalistic viewpoints.  That was until I learned about prophetic tradition.  This tradition used by the prophets of old inserted itself in environments that called for an end to injustices, wrongdoings and cautioned against going in the wrong direction.  Therefore, these words of Jesus and the prophet Simeon speak more to the mission of Jesus than they do to a spirit of division.

Under the headship of King Jesus the church, regardless of doctrinal disagreements, ought to be able to unite for kingdom work.  I have always been deeply saddened by division within our own tribe even more-so than I am about division across denominational lines.  While I understand that these divisions will never fully be resolved until the return of Christ, I would strongly suggest we take Paul’s words to the Philippian church to heart.  “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”  (Php. 2:12-13).  The “good purpose” speaks to the prophetic nature we discussed earlier – living out the type of kingdom life that seeks to stamp out injustices against the poor, the weak, the widows and the orphans, but that is not all.  Surrounding the entire passage is perhaps the greatest teaching on the type of spirit that Christ not only showcased, but one that Paul is mandating.  The spirit of humility.  Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Php. 2:1-4).

As I’ve ministered through the years I’ve been heartened by the fact that many of my friends have been set free from the bonds of legalism.  I’ve often asked them, what happened?  Their answers have been about the same.  We found ourselves robbed of the joys of belonging to Christ, or they could no longer live under the yoke of perfectionism mandated by their local body of believers.  Since then, they had been ostracized by their home church and in many cases their own family members.  This is not the spirit of Christ.  This is not the division he said he was coming to bring.  Regardless of who we are and where we’ve been let’s all make an effort to return to the very scriptures we know so well and study them again and again through the eyes of someone who doesn’t seek to be reminded they are right, but to be transformed into the very image of Jesus.  (2 Cor. 3:18).

If you are ever privileged enough to visit Israel, you might find yourself standing 1476 feet above the Jezreel Valley at the top of Mount Tabor.  This is the traditional spot upon which Jesus was transfigured in the presence of Peter, James and John.  I’m sure you remember the moment, and I’m quite sure Peter will never forget it… “While Peter was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.  A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” Lk. 9:34-35.  This of course takes place precisely after Peter recognizes Moses and Elijah who are conversing with Jesus, and then suggests that it would be a great idea if he (Peter) builds three shelters for them.

Today a Roman Catholic Church completed in 1924 resides on the supposed spot of the transfiguration.  It is built upon the ruins of a 12th century Crusader Catholic Church, which is itself built upon the ruins of a 4th-6th century Byzantine Era Church.  The artistry and decor of the most recent building ironically has three rooms.  The two on either side are built to honor Moses and Elijah, while the one in the middle is built to honor Jesus.  I guess what Peter had been discouraged to accomplish, others finished for him. 

I felt as if this experience spoke directly to what many American churches face when building impressive structures that are meant to be attractional to those we know need Jesus.

Here’s an irony to throw at you.  As I write this article in a month themed, “If You Build It, They Won’t Come”, we are 3 weeks away from occupying the brand new Gateway Church of Christ building.  It truly is a state of the art facility!  We were painstakingly intentional, designing every facet of the building to be attractive, cutting edge, and inviting to the general public.  The opportunity to build was not of our doing, but rather something that completely fell in our laps.  Kind of akin to hitting the winning jackpot lottery numbers without ever buying a ticket.  Many ministers spend their entire careers wishing something like this would happen to them (If I’m being honest, I know I have).  While culture shifts all around us, many of us find ourselves stuck in a building that is not only uninviting, but in many cases has often been guilty of manufacturing more hurt than healing.  Out of our desire to change that culture we many times build something out of the hope that it reflects what we dream we are really like!

The experience at the Church of the Transfiguration is beautiful no doubt.  Artistically its mosaics are designed to tell a story.  This great story is reflected in the architecture.  What pained me was that while this beautiful structure serves its purpose to retell a story, it stands as a monument of something that happened there.  It’s not so much a place of sending but rather a place of reminding.  There is a biblical precedent for that.  We are all familiar with the hebrew scriptures that left instructions to the Jewish people to build altars at locations where God had delivered them to be set as a reminder to future generations of what God had done.  It is part of remembering our story. 

I remember feeling badly for the designers of the past structures.  When they built their own buildings they were all doing something they felt was for the future.  What they didn’t know at the time, was that over time, the land would change ownership and their beautiful structures would be torn down and largely forgotten.  Who knows how many people their work inspired?  Who knows what kind of ministerial work emanated from that precipice?  That reminder stuck with me as we were then in the beginning phases of relocating and designing a structure for the future.  How would we do it differently?

The way we went about it was to build something that helped people find ways they could be invited into a part of this living story.  We wanted to welcome them in a way that gave them a freedom from judgment and allowed them to change their current story.  We wanted to create an atmosphere that  positively affected the broken stories of others with the truth of Jesus.  In other words we had to start reminding ourselves while teaching our people that the church is DYNAMIC not STATIC.  The church for millennia has spread due to the dynamic nature of its origin.  It should never be bound to a location, but rather a people.  I’m reminded of Acts 7:48-50 where Luke reminds us that “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:  “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.  What kind of house will you build for me?  says the Lord.  Or where will my resting place be?  Has not my hand made all these things?”  Or better yet, 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”

Jesus gave the orders to go and build disciples, not buildings.  Yet it’s also worth noting that he didn’t condemn the practice of building either.  While building a new building might excite those who have positive memories of once belonging to a church, it doesn’t exactly draw the masses.  The public generally doesn’t care.  If we want them to come, just as the father longed for his prodigal son to come home, we must create a place that draws them with compassion, not judgment.  A place that offers forgiveness not grudges.  Wherever we are we must maintain the dynamic nature of the church and try our best not to become static.