Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Being a First-Century Christian in a Denominational World

May 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Monthly Articles

“Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!  Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?'” ~ Acts 2:7-12

Teaching on the Bible and Church History, each year I am invariably asked by curious students, “What is your denomination?”  Eye-brows are raised when I respond, “I consider myself a first-century Christian.” True, I was sprinkled in a Presbyterian Church, saved in a Southern Baptist Church, indoctrinated in a Conservative Baptist Church, liturgicalized in an Evangelical Lutheran Church, and settled in a non-denominational church, but I long to be part of the original church of Jesus Christ, the one started by Him and His Disciples/Apostles 2,000 years ago.

I sometimes wonder if people just want to know my church background in order to a) affirm their own church tradition or b) dismiss any theological proclamations or biblical interpretations that I might say in class.  The long-standing problem with denominationalism is that it sets up believers to promote their founders’ take on God, Jesus, salvation, security, etc. over another’s.  I’ll admit having my own biases against other different church-goers; too often I felt pity for their silly adherence to the ways of man when my church, the real Church, had the straight scoop and God’s right ear. How Pharisaical of me…

The problem was that as I read the Bible, studied Church History, and listened to my church leaders explain our spiritual superiority to others, I began to perceive that even though the other churches were leaning too much upon the ways of man, my church was just as bad.  How could we be so condemning of the Catholics because of their belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception or the Nazarenes because of their assertion that Jesus never drank alcoholic wine or the Methodists because of their view that one could attain Christian Perfection when double-predestination is never explicitly mentioned in Scripture, either?

Reading through 1 Corinthians (TNIV), it is evident that Paul and the early Church encountered similar problems. In chapter 4, Paul writes, “Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else?” The only thing superior about a Christian is his or her savior–all Christians, all humans, have the same sinful nature pushing us away from God and each other. Thus, denominational snootiness comes across like a man in a lifeboat mocking another man for his misfortune in the very same lifeboat.

Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Finney, Moody, Barth, Graham, John Paul II, Piper, Warren and the like were/are great Christian thinkers who help us get deeper to the truth of God’s plan, but none of their writings are canonized Biblical texts.  More importantly, none of them are our savior and redeemer. Belief in their messages does not save us from our sins.  That role is reserved for Jesus alone. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Embracing these men’s understandings of God is not necessarily a sin unless–unless–one puts Calvin’s words or Bell’s or one’s own words ahead of Christ’s.  Such behavior is what got humanity in trouble at the dawn of humanity in the Garden of Eden. Similarly, “Did God really say…?” is the oft-said mantra these days that is quickly followed by a different Gospel, “which is really no Gospel at all” (Galatians 1).

Our society allows for much religious freedom and choice, which is a wonderful gift, but a gift with consequences, good or bad.  The flesh craves power, self-indulgence, and the easy road. Thus, we can pick a theologian that tickles our ears, strokes our egos, or satisfies our cravings for power and vengeance, but is that really the Way that pulled so many people to God out of the world of Paganism and godlessness two thousand years ago? If we deconstruct the road to salvation paved by Jesus (who is God), how can any other paths built with human wisdom and purposes get us there, no matter how superior or creative or self-empowering? 

Being a Christian means loving God and others sincerely and purposefully, submitting to His story–not advancing ours, acknowledging our personal weaknesses and our need for each other.  God wants us to be happy in Him, but that requires being unified in Love and Mercy and Truth. Paul speaks of this Godly reality in Galatians 3:26-28, which is just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago–“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

Pre-election, politicians always claim that they will unite the country if elected, yet they never do, but Jesus can unite people and does presently and has done since the Church began.  The question is whether we are going to join with Him in uniting the world or resist loving each other as Christ loves us.  Unified, the Church exploded across the Mediterranean region. Divided, the Church has imploded and diminished in stature and effectiveness.  Perhaps the time has come to shift the focus back to Jesus, with whom all things are possible.

 

I have a PhD in Theology & Religion from the University of Birmingham, UK (2009), a MATS in Christian History and Thought from George Fox University,and a BA in History from Oregon State (I am also finishing another BA in English because I am a nerd). I have been married to my beautiful wife, Brenda, for twenty years and we have two sons, Jacob, who is nine and Joseph, who was born in 2009. We had some scary times with him as he had to have heart surgery a couple weeks after he was born but he is doing fine now! Oh, we also have one dog–Sallie. Sallie is a young mini Australian shepherd with one blue eye and one brown eye; and she is thoroughly lovable (Is that a breed?). I plan on continuing in the collegiate academic world although I have dreams of writing a novel in my spare time. I have been published a few times already and have a book deal on my PhD dissertation. I have taught online (and in person) for several universities for 10 years and have enjoyed it. I do love teaching Church History, btw! My PhD concerned the Sociology of Religion and it was so intriguing studying how/why people believe what they do, theologically.   You can reach Mr. Knox here:  jknox@georgefox.edu  

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Comments

One Response to “Being a First-Century Christian in a Denominational World”
  1. Ryan Carothers says:

    Great article, Dr. Knox! It is a great reminder of the source of truth. But more importantly, it shows how we ought to prioritize loving one another. You are spot on as to why the church has stagnated. We have lost sight of truth and unity. If we practice being the family of God, the church will grow as rapidly as it did in the first century!

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