Monday, October 16, 2017
The expression “New Testament Christians” is a phrase often found in the writings and speeches of Restoration Movement advocates. I am one of them. That “Movement” began in the early nineteenth century with Alexander Campbell as a key figure. His plea was to discard anything which divided Christians by returning to the unity of the New Testament. The expression “New Testament Christians,” is misunderstood by some to be “a church and its membership pleasing God with perfect obedience”! That may be a noble goal and an honest desire, but the results have been disappointing. In fact, reality has displayed a contradictory picture! The multiple lists describing that “perfect obedience” have not been unifying. The differences have created division not unity.
The New Testament is not written to churches that topped the pinnacle of perfection. Only Jesus lived a perfect life. That’s why he is our Savior! Imperfect people make up the saved because God adds them to it (Acts 2:41, 47 NASV). It is referred to as the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Neither saint nor assembly are perfect because of our faith or practice. Both are perfect because we have received the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our perfection comes from what he did. Our achievements are successful messes! Without Jesus’ righteousness, our imagined Armani suits reappear as filthy rags! Twenty-three of the twenty-seven New Testament books refer to 20 or more imperfect first century assemblies. Most, if not all needed correction. Some more than others. Even the mother church needed it! That inherited gene is a constant reminder that Jesus is the answer to our sin problem, not mimicking our Genesis 11:4 ancestors!
Denominating did not begin in our lifetime. The first century church introduced it to the world! Paul used about 25% of his first letter to Corinth to discuss this problem (1 Corinthians 1:2, 10-13; Chapters 2-4). Its roots of discord impacted every facet of their congregational life! Within Paul’s letter is a truth often missed. Corinth is an example of an assembly of the sinning saved living as “New Testament Christians.” God is showing us that even at our worst, His grace is sufficient! We need to learn that.
If being “New Testament Christians” refers to a congregation having everything right, then which one? Jerusalem, Corinth, Ephesus, Sardis, Laodicea, and others were void of it. Anyone being corrected would hardly fit the category of “having everything right.” In fact, the only congregations today that believe they have arrived at perfection are those who have been deceived by Satan. Their prayers would fit the Pharisee’s more than the publican’s petition. We are all sinners redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. If an assembly can do everything right, why would they need God’s grace? There would be no need of any public or private prayers seeking forgiveness. The righteous have no need of grace because they have succeeded in clothing themselves in their own rightness! They are head and shoulders above those who aren’t as spiritual as they are! Wasn’t Laodicea in that category, not needing anything (Revelation 3:17)?
Paul refers to Corinth as “the church of God.” He calls them “brethren.” He says they are “the body of Christ,” “the temple of the Holy Spirit,” “the temple of God,” and that they have been “bought,” “washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified.” All that in the very letter he writes to correct them. The only time the subject of withdrawing is introduced, is for all four denominating groups to engage in withdrawing from that one man (1 Corinthians 5:1-11)! They are in fellowship with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All churches of Christ are in fellowship with them. Which means that despite their erroneous practices and doctrine, they and other assemblies are involved in living as “New Testament Christians.” If they were not, would that mean they weren’t Christians until they had everything right? Do you (1 John 1:8, 10)?
So, what is a “New Testament Christian”? First, the phrase itself is not found in the very source that is supposed to teach it! Is it a list of “dos and don’ts”? If so, what passage gives that list? Most will reply, “It is found in the New Testament”! That’s what is called, a “cop out.” It is not a “one, two, three” type list. That brings us back to the truth about what some miss when reading Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Before the house of Chloe wrote to Paul, had the congregation stopped being “New Testament Christians”? What about members in Ephesus? They had left their first love (Revelation 2:4). What about the dead church at Sardis (Revelation 3:1)? What about the Jerusalem church that continued to be zealous for the Law of Moses and its practices (Acts 21:20)? If they didn’t have it, it meant they weren’t doing everything right! That is, if being “New Testament Christians” means “getting everything right.” If they were “New Testament Christians,” despite their errors, then it has nothing to do with a congregation’s membership being perfect.
It is strange how the first century church, in its imperfections, exploded from 120 members to about 3,000 in one day (Acts 1: 15; 2:41). Soon after that, another 5,000 responded (Acts 4:4). All that growth without getting everything right! What congregation today, that is doing everything right, matches the imperfection of the first century church’s growth? If not, wouldn’t that mean they are guilty of something which is impeding them from being “New Testament Christians”? Despite Jerusalem’s imperfections, God continued adding to their number! If being a “New Testament Christian” means doing everything right, then why would God add the saved to an imperfect, racist group that refused to preach the good news to another race for an entire decade? Would you want to be added to a congregation that continued to attend the Temple and make your offerings through the Levitical priests? Paul joined them (Acts 9:26). He proved he was zealous for the Law by so worshiping (Acts 21:24).
Most overlook the fact that God added a sect of Pharisees to the membership of the Jerusalem saved! What eldership would do that today? Would yours? Yet, those added Pharisees, attempted to get everything right by demanding that all Gentiles be circumcised after the Law of Moses before they could be accepted as valid Christians. (Acts 15:1-6). These added ones also came from James, Jesus’ brother, and instilled fear in Peter to get everything right, by being hypocritical toward Gentiles saints (Galatians 2:11-15). This hypocrisy affected Barnabas and others. Yet, they were “New Testament Christians”! Peter needed some “in your face” correction, but wasn’t he covered with a blanket called grace? What about those whom he feared?
What we read in our Bible is imperfect congregations (members) living as “New Testament Christians.” They assembled to learn. They met to give. They assembled to question, convict, and provide burial services (Acts 5:1-11). They met to praise God and eat together. They met to turn their assemblies into miraculous hospitals. They met in their assemblies to distribute to the needy. They met at night to break bread. They assembled to pray, even when they didn’t expect an answer. In all this, the Holy Spirit is showing us what is involved in being “New Testament Christians.” It was not about how right one was over others. No, it wasn’t about saints or assemblies being perfect by their righteous obedience, but rather Jesus sharing his perfection with the sinning saved. He removed our filthy rags and clothed us in his righteousness! We need to “rejoice.” You and I stand before God the Father, clothed in all the glory and righteousness of Jesus Christ. We are washed in his blood. We are dead to sin. We are no longer under condemnation. Assurance is our shield. Hope is our anchor. His promises are our foundation. We who were the sinning lost, He has added us to his category of the sinless, sinning saved!
That is the “truth” we seem to be missing today. That is the good news illustrated through the imperfections of Jerusalem, Corinth, Sardis, Ephesus, and others who were day in, and day out, living as, what we call, “New Testament Christians”!